Middle age can cause men to do ridiculous things in an effort to reclaim their identity. Some invest in gaudy gold watches or flashy red coupés. Others, like Georges (Jean Dujardin), flush their shitty old jackets down gas station toilets and drive deep into the countryside in search of another.
So begins the eighth feature from French cinema’s enfant absurdist Quentin Dupieux. Thrumming with the twisted logic that has become his trademark, it sees Jean Dujardin’s recently divorced 44-year-old wanting in purpose and eventually finding it in the ill-fitting shape of 1969’s jacket du jour, a suede number so fantastically fringed it’d make Dennis Hopper blush. As Georges gawks at himself in the mirror and begins talking to his new object of obsession, it becomes clear that few garments have quite as much character as this one. Things get sinister as it asserts itself on the wayward divorcee’s mind and eventually bestows him with a lofty raison d’être: to destroy all jackets but his.
It’s a predictably bizarre setup that makes for a typically weird, terrifically funny, and sensationally violent picture, as Georges’ quest leads to collateral damage. The eponymous garb may be 100 percent leather, but, as with the director’s other works, Deerskin is a hybrid: part deadpan comedy, part dramatic meditation on midlife crises, part phantasmagorical horror, the movie eventually sharpening its sides and carving out a niche for itself alongside such off-kilter serial killer flicks as Serial Mom and American Psycho.
Dujardin is superb throughout, radiating uncut divorced dad energy one minute and childish naivety the next. Georges takes to the digital camcorder given to him as a bonus for buying his démodé jacket like a child would a new toy, or like an unmoored middle-aged man would a new hobby. Now broke and holed up in a mountainside hotel, he begins posing as a director, first by vacantly documenting his extended holiday (he mostly shoots himself) and then by turning his lens on others. The fledgling auteur finds that when he points his camera at people, they’re happy to hand over their jackets for the cause, the camera here a symbol of authority.
Amateur editor Denise, who works at the local bar and is wonderfully, expressively played by Adèle Haenel, seemingly believes Georges’ bluster and offers to cut his feature. As with any mise en abyme movie—including Rubber, Dupieux’s most well-known film—things get meta. When Denise suggests that his film is strange, Georges responds that she doesn’t yet see it for what it is, a sly wink from Dupieux.
As our greying antihero adds to his burgeoning deerskin wardrobe with a hat, trousers, and gloves, each new piece acts as a maniacal power-up. Emboldened, he resorts to slaying people and stripping their corpses, his pedestrian footage spiraling into a full-blown snuff film. Many of his victims are cinemagoers, stalked after leaving their local theatre. If Georges is a kind of conduit for Dupieux, then the director here is lancing his audience, the people who might ordinarily level accusations at him for making his ludicrous stories up as he goes along, something that’s absolutely true of Georges.
Dupieux has said that this is a film about freedom and what we choose to do with it. It’s also about the freedoms of directors—or those posing as them—to do as they please. With more than 15 years of moviemaking behind him, it’s difficult not to read Deerskin in part as a send-up of the aspirations of the director at large and the sovereignty he (it’s always a “he”) is able to wield in trying to achieve them. Georges, a man still testing the boundaries of his newfound freedom and sliding into the kind of madness that comes with big ambitions and a lack of borders, finds power in his camera. His outrageous aim of being the only jacket-wearer in the world is only marginally more deranged (and deadly) than Werner Herzog dragging a steamship over a mountain.
Unlike Herzog, Georges isn’t successful. Deerskin runs at a brisk 77 minutes, scarcely enough time for this Gallic cowpoke to erase every jacket in the region, let alone on the planet. His bestial cosplay, freewheeling misdemeanors, and overwhelming hubris can’t come without consequences.
Movie Score: 4/5