When it comes to making a surrealist movie, “The clothing makes the man” is surely as good of a jumping-off point as any. Quentin Dupieux’s wonderfully weird “Deerskin” is born from this expression, another notch in his quirky filmography—recall that his breakthrough effort “Rubber” is about a rampaging psychic tire, of all things. Kicking off the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of the Cannes Film Festival, Dupieux again works his bizarre magic with the most ordinary of objects—a buckskin coat. Running a swift 77 minutes, the eccentric filmmaker’s latest efforts is a hilarious and twisted festival amuse-bouche with tremendous cult appeal.
The log line of “Deerskin” can be reduced to an existential journey for everyman Georges (Jean Dujardin). He sets down this road at identity level zero when he comically attempts to flush his existing outerwear down a rest-stop toilet. As his wife observantly chides over the phone, “You’re nowhere. You no longer exist.” With no apparent direction in mind, Georges stops at a secluded home to purchase a gaudy deerskin jacket (tasseled and all) for an exorbitant amount of money. His travels bring him to a small town in the shadow of a mountain; an extended hotel stay—not unlike “The Shining”—deepens his obsession and brings about violent consequences.
The buckskin article of clothing becomes a totemic object for Georges, functioning as a declaration of his newly-established identity. A DV camcorder, thrown in by the jacket’s seller to sweeten the pot, comes in handy when Georges’ seeks to create a cinematic record of his narcissism. On his wavelength is local bartender Denise (Adèle Haenel, pulling double duty at Cannes —she is the lead of “Portrait of a Lady on Fire”), taking up the role of editor for Georges’ home movies. When he begins to wage a war on all other jackets, Denise is inevitably taken along for the ride.
Setting aside impeccable craft on the part of Dupieux—pulling a Steven Soderbergh by taking on writing, editing and photography duties, in addition to direction—it is the two leads’ game performances that animate this story of inanimate outerwear. Dujardin, emblematic of French cinema after his Oscar-winning part in “The Artist,” has no qualms looking the fool (or devilishly handsome, depending on how you feel about tassels). Sporting a formidable salt-and-pepper beard as Georges, the actor is certain to age gracefully into Gallic film history.
Haenel should be most familiar to English-language cinema-goers for her turns in the Dardennes’ “The Unknown Girl” and as the token female Act Up member in “BPM,” but clearly refuses to be pigeonholed as a dour dramatist. Wide-eyed and inquisitive, Georges’ whims find their match in Denise’s open-mindedness. She is not as naive as she might appear when she drains her bank account to bankroll the fraudulent production; like the audience, she is compelled by the intrigue of the deerskin piece.
Georges labels his amateur recording as the work of a filmmaker (mostly to hoodwink Denise), but it’s more accurately an exercise in narcissism. George is constantly admiring his self-professed “killer style” in the mirror, as if each glimpse is as striking as his first encounter with the jacket. He eventually takes the ‘killer’ adjective literally, fashioning a DIY sword from the blade of a hotel ceiling fan and using it brutally in his mission to round up offending coats. These kinds of gleeful twists keep “Deerskin” captivating, with no obvious dénouement in sight.
In keeping with the tenets of surrealism, “Deerskin” encourages interpretation as much as it refuses to be understood through reason. When Denise gets her first glimpse of Georges’ rushes, she becomes a mouthpiece for the audience. In her eyes, the madman’s film is about the jacket—true—as a metaphor the shell that we wear to protect ourselves from the world. Certainly, one of the first explanations that one might reach for, but as a rationalization, it’s too tidy and simple, too banal. Despite the best of interpretative efforts, “Deerskin” is irreducible to a simple parable.
Even though “Deerskin” can be contextualized within a contemporary strain of surrealism in European cinema (bedfellows with the early work of Yorgos Lanthimos, to be sure), its sheer ridiculousness and unpretentious air lend the film a much longer reach with international audiences. Likewise, Dupieux’s work is a refreshing antidote to the dour realism exported by most French auteurs. Just as the eponymous jacket leads to Georges completing a buckskin ensemble; like that statement piece, “Deerskin” is apt to be a gateway drug to odder tastes. [B+]