As a fair share of people have witnessed first hand, getting older can drive men to weird places. Some pick up different hobbies. 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 drifting 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 (probably the sanest) for the man’s sudden obsession with a new 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 even love love the jacket.
Locked out of the joint bank account he shares with his ex-wife after his expensive purchase, Georges drifts into a remote alpine town, talking his way into a room at the local lodge. Here, he ends up masquerading, on a BSing 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, the 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 piece of clothing, inspiring a quest to rid of the world of all other jackets, that we recognize the dangerous depth of his detachment to the world.
This lunacy comes from the imagination of French musician-turned-filmmaker Quentin Dupieux, whose movies often amount to less than the sum of their absurdist parts; movies usually rich with nutty ideas and populated by characters uninterested in explaining them. Dupieux’s breakthrough, Rubber, was a flimsy mixed bag of a Dadaist parody, 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. 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 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, but Deerskin is actually about something beyond Dupieux’s ironic remove. Georges lurches into moviemaking — and, later, into something much more disturbing — mainly to swindle bartender and aspiring editor Denise (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 abyss 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 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, though, who holds the whole thing together, straight through to its almost casual tilt from humor into horror. Rocking a stocky frame and a bushy salt-and-pepper beard that makes him look, occasionally and uncannily, like Mandy Patinkin, the actor never overplays Georges’ descent into madness, while also singlehandedly injecting Deerskin with the gonzo energy that keeps the film pumping. Via his inspired comic performance, he sells it as a natural outgrowth of the character’s ego meltdown — the midlife crisis as a 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 seventy-seven minutes, Deerskin is more a twisted romp than anything else, but it hits on something meaningful — a first for a director who’s shown almost no prior interest in reality, even with having released a film called Reality. As a taut lark of the blissfully strange, Deerskin‘s portrait of deceiving self-regard through a demented love story between a man and his jacket is singular filmmaking of deceptive simplicity.