Deerskin hails from the multi-hyphenate French filmmaker, Quentin Dupieux, and for some of you that’s probably all I really need to say about the movie. Dupieux has a track record of crafting self-reflexive, surreal, high-concept fare streaked with dark humor, and his works are very much an acquired taste. Which isn’t to say they’re unattainably lofty or anything! The film he’s mostly widely recognized for here in the U.S. is a little movie about a psychokinetic murderous tire called Rubber.
Yes, seriously. A killer tire. And I’ll be honest — the first time I saw it, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. The concept may be completely absurd, but the film never tips the scale toward being too silly or toward taking itself too seriously. It’s deranged in an almost clinical sense, following a pure yet alien logic all its own. I kept promising myself I’d turn it off in 5 more minutes, or I’d give up when this scene ended, because it was just too weird even for me — and next thing I knew, the credits were rolling and I’d sat through the entire thing. It gave me just enough substance to pull me along even when I felt adrift. Just enough solid intrigue to hold me in place. Just enough WTFery to make want to find out how much weirder it could get.
While Deerskin is very much in the same vein as Rubber, it’s a little bit sharper and more refined. I’d even go so far as to say it’s more mature. Instead of a killer tire, this time around there’s “Killer Style” — a phrase that’s repeated like a virus, doubling and spreading through the picture’s svelte runtime (77 minutes! IT’S DELIGHTFUL!). As the film begins, Georges (Jean Dujardin, The Artist) drives out to the countryside to complete a transaction with someone he’s met online: an old man selling a deerskin leather jacket. He forks over an astronomical fee for his prize — over 7000 euros — and the old man throws in a barely-used digital video camera as a freebie. This jacket becomes the centerpiece of the film, and Georges’s object of obsession, while the camera becomes a tool with which Georges can build a monument in his jacket’s honor.
I should note, however, that the jacket is not attractive — nor does the movie try to convince you otherwise. It’s the sort of fringed suede concoction that’s 40 years out of style, and it’s too small and cropped to fit Georges properly. As he preens in front of his own reflection, it’s impossible for us as viewers to miss the fact that the belt is twisted and doesn’t hang right, or the 3 inches of waist stretching between the bottom of the jacket and the top of his pants. This isn’t a flaw, of course, but intentional, underscoring that the jacket itself isn’t the point — the importance Georges places on it is the thing. At first, it seems like Georges is perhaps using this as some sort of midlife crisis. We don’t get the details, but his wife has locked him out of their shared bank accounts after his little spending spree, and he happily lays his wedding ring down as collateral for a room at a nearby boarding house. This jacket is perhaps symbolically significant to him — a reinvention of himself as a better, more interesting person — and when he starts talking to it, it’s easy to dismiss it as a lonely man’s whims.
Until the jacket starts talking back.
Turns out, the pair share a dream. The jacket wants to be only jacket in the world, and Georges wants to be the only person in the world who is wearing a jacket. This is the hard swerve we all knew was coming as soon as those single, plaintive horn bleats started blaring from the soundtrack, and this will likely be your all-in or bail-out moment for the film. There is no gotcha twist making the movie about something else, and no sly wink at the camera to open the movie up to being read as a satire. This is a movie about the partnership between a man and his jacket to eliminate all other jackets from the face of the earth, the increasingly unhinged lengths they’ll go to in pursuit of their goal, and the film they make about their mission along the way. It almost begs you to take it at face value.
Yes, as part of Georges’s reinvention, he lies and claims to be a filmmaker in town for a production — and he’s convincing enough that he wins over the local bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel, Portrait of a Lady on Fire), who agrees to put her amateur editing skills at his disposal. Denise is excited about the project, which she thinks is a sort of mockumentary, but she also pushes Georges to deliver better material — more action, more close shots. More drama! Georges himself has picked up a textbook book on filmmaking, and there’s fascinating back and forth between his techniques on screen and the ones Dupieux himself employs to shoot the movie, as though the lessons Georges learns in how to shoot better, Deerskin intentionally ignores. As Georges moves his camcorder closer to his subjects, Dupieux pulls his farther back. What it all adds up to is a way of keeping the artificiality — or the art — in the forefront of your mind as a viewer, and that in turn makes you more aware of some of Dupieux’s more clever tricks. There is a shift in power between Georges and Denise, though it’s never quite clear when, or even if, she is aware of just how truly “killer” his style is. Even the autonomy of the jacket is complicated, as early scenes make it clear Georges is pitching his voice and speaking as the jacket, when a later scene has the jacket speaking while Georges is asleep. Georges could be delusional, or maybe his jacket is psychic. Dupieux knows exactly how to guide you toward narrative conclusions, and he also flat out refuses to do so. He may throw in a number of bizarre flourishes into this story, which seem to make no sense — but then he pulls out a perfectly unexpected Chekhov’s gun in the final moments, proving he was calculating the elements the whole time.
Still, all of this would be eye-rollingly meta if it were not about an ugly suede jacket and told in barely over an hour with some of the best actors in the biz. What saves Deerskin is the confident balance it strikes between being lightly irreverent and casually dead-pan — a balance that makes it such an unusually accurate depiction of obsession, and of art. Though sadly not of fashion. Because seriously, that jacket is ugly AF.
Deerskin opened nationwide on May 1st as part of Greenwich Entertainment’s virtual cinema partnership with theaters throughout the country. 50% of proceeds will go to local theaters to support them during this unprecedented time.
Header Image Source: Greenwich Entertainment