Getting older drives men to weird places. Some cope with ink or dye. Others splurge on sports cars. And of course, there’s the timeless ritual of chasing someone half your age, as though the attention of youth might somehow restore it. For Georges, the unmoored fortysomething divorcé Jean Dujardin plays in the demented French comedy Deerskin, midlife crisis takes the form of a fashion statement. That, anyway, is one explanation (maybe the sanest) for the man’s sudden obsession with a prized possession: a vintage jacket made entirely from the skin of a deer. Standing before a full-length mirror, having just forked over several thousand euros for this new addition to his wardrobe, Georges radiates an almost romantic satisfaction with his purchase. He loves how he looks and feels. He loves the jacket. He might love love it, even.
Locked out of the joint bank account he shares with his ex-wife (the fringed coat cost a nest egg, somehow), Georges drifts into a remote alpine town, talking his way into a room at the local lodge. Here, he ends up masquerading, on a bullshitting whim, as a filmmaker. He then becomes an actual filmmaker (using the digital camera that came, rather inexplicably, with the jacket), though it’s all just a means to an end, a roundabout route to a quick buck and a way to feed his late-blooming addiction to suede. As played by Dujardin, Oscar-winning star of The Artist, Georges is a precise caricature of deluded self-regard. He’s so pathetic, in fact, that everyone—characters and viewers alike—might presume him harmless. It’s around the time Georges starts carrying on conversations with his favorite winter wear, inspiring a quest to rid the world of all other jackets, that we recognize the dangerous depth of his detachment.
This lunacy comes from the imagination of French musician-turned-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux (stage name: Mr. Oizo), whose movies often amount to less than the sum of their absurdist parts. Dupieux’s breakthrough, Rubber, was a flimsy Dadaist parody of B-movie schlock, in which a sentient killer tire with telepathic powers rolled around the desert, exploding craniums for the entertainment of an “audience” watching the action from afar with binoculars. (The film opened, famously, with a fourth-wall-breaking monologue designed to reassure us that none of what followed was to be taken seriously or at face value.) Deerskin, like that arthouse prank of a horror comedy, rides a single joke to feature length. But the joke this time is pretty funny. And it helps that Dupieux, for once, is operating within something like the real world, ditching the anything-goes surrealism of his past work, which had no stakes, only sight gags and deadpan nods to the artificiality of movies themselves.
Pointlessness was, in fact, the whole point of Rubber; it announced its philosophy of “no reason” upfront and stuck to it. But Deerskin is actually about something beyond Dupieux’s ironic remove. Georges lurches into moviemaking—and, later, into something more disturbing—mainly to bilk bartender and aspiring editor Denise (Portrait Of A Lady On Fire’s Adèle Haenel) out of whatever she’ll give him for a nonexistent project. Even after he starts generating footage for her, it’s all part of his crazed crusade; one day of shooting is actually just an excuse to steal all of the actors’ jackets. What the film is goofing on is the chasm that sometimes separates an artist’s perceived intentions and the much less rational, sophisticated reality of them. Any genius Denise sees in Georges’ amateur vérité (“We all hide behind a shell to protect us from the outside world,” goes her charitable interpretation) is entirely accidental, a byproduct of his singular devotion. At the risk of falling into the very trap Dupieux is satirizing, you could read Deerskin as a comedy about the fact that some artists are just vain weirdoes who luck into funding and fan bases.
It’s Dujardin who holds the whole thing together, straight through to its almost casual tilt from humor into horror, like some droll backdoor homage to Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. Sporting a stocky frame and a bushy gray beard that makes him look, occasionally and uncannily, like Mandy Patinkin, the actor never overplays Georges’ descent into madness. Via his inspired comic performance (possibly the most restrained this French cutup has yet delivered), he sells it as a natural outgrowth of the character’s ego meltdown—the midlife crisis as screwball bumble into creativity and crime. In playing someone consumed by a sad, obsessive vanity, Dujardin leaves his own at the door. At a slim 77 minutes, Deerskin is more of a twisted lark than anything else, but it hits on something meaningful—a first for a director who’s shown almost no prior interest in reality, even within a film called Reality.