A ghastly emptiness lies at the center of Deerskin, the latest film by French director Quentin Dupieux. That emptiness signals not fillable blank space but a violent absence of substance, much as a black hole indicates, by negative inference, a star that has collapsed upon itself.
The visible absence at the center of Deerskin is its lead character, Georges, expertly played by Oscar-winning actor Jean Dujardin (The Artist). Georges, a middle-aged man in free fall, is less antihero than antimatter itself, an almost buffoonish cipher whose story we pick up just moments after his life goes supernova.
The only indication of Georges’ dire condition, aside from his Gump-like blankness and lack of affect, is a single phone call he makes after driving his car (sort of randomly, it turns out) into a small town in the French countryside. “You are nothing,” his estranged lover says over the line — news that Georges receives with the quizzical flatness of the shell-shocked.
Yes, this hapless shell of a man is indeed the lead of this stark, strange film, but he might not be its true subject. Early in the proceedings, we see Georges visit an antiquarian, Monsieur B. (Albert Delpy), who sells him an authentic deerskin jacket for the sum total of his life savings.
“Fuck,” Georges says in awe, immediately enchanted by this tasseled relic right out of a spaghetti western. “Killer style.”
The antiquarian, struck perhaps by the empathy of a man who just took a fool for all he’s worth, throws a shitty camcorder into the bargain, and it is precisely here that Georges decides he’s a filmmaker. At least that’s what he tells the local bartender, Denise (Adele Haenel), whom he eventually enlists as the “creditor,” or, rather, editor, on the mysterious movie he’s shooting.
Georges’ movie is a work of cinéma vérité, to say the least; he might as well be a caveman handed a camera, which, I suspect, is part of this film’s devious point. As Georges, increasingly in thrall to his jacket (eventually he begins talking to it, and for it), starts to remake his identity, his film project becomes increasingly desperate, revealing all the inspired creativity of a child burning insects with a magnifying glass.
In the end, few things are more dangerous than a child in a grown man’s bigly body.
Deerskin is being marketed stateside as a “horror comedy,” a broad label that seems to lasso in everything from Happy Death Day to Kafka’s Metamorphosis. Certainly the film has its darkly funny moments, and it does turn savage and bloody in the final third, but fans of either genre will be distinctly unsatisfied if they load this one up with any expectations whatsoever. This film is dry to the point of crispy, and weird to the point of woozy.
Clocking in at a mere 70 minutes, Deerskin exhibits the dense symbolic compression of a latter-day fairy tale — a very French and very postmodern fairy tale, one that takes the familiar subject of existential despair and dips it in a cartoony vat of Marxist alienation and poststructural feminist theory. Imagine Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” crossed with Yorgos Lanthimos’ brilliant 2015 film The Lobster, and you begin to get an idea of just how deeply subtextual this film is.
Director Dupieux and his small, talented cast have great fun with it, reveling in the surfaces of grotesque slapstick and emotional farce while digging their spurs into the hide of a collapsing world’s social malaise. This film, better than any other, explains to me why the French so revere Jerry Lewis.
But, more than anything, Deerskin is a wonderfully barbed goof on one of Marx’s most ignored and unexplored concepts, that of commodity fetishism — the idea that, as people living in capitalist-consumer economies are treated more and more like machines, the products they buy gain a mystical quality of living things, all to obscure the brutality of the system that produces those things.
Georges, an emotionally bankrupt and financially routed man who is remade by his Davy Crocket-like jacket, begins to live — and kill — solely to fulfill the destiny conferred by that seemingly magical object. The deerskin becomes his skin, an outward identity that masks an inner void. Not to spoil anything, but how well that goes for him is about how well this is all going for us. Horror comedy, indeed.
Deerskin, along with a host of other titles, is being offered through Broadway Metro’s Virtual Cinema program, which allows you to watch new releases at home. You can also order popcorn and growlers for delivery. For more information, visit BroadwayMetro.com.