If you’ve heard of Quentin Dupieux, it might be in relation to one of his earlier films, Rubber. It’s the story of a tire—you know, the ones on cars—that goes on a murderous rampage. A decade later (with several titles to his name in between), Dupieux returns with a film just as absurd—and just as watchable. Deerskin centers around a man (Jean Dujardin) with an odd obsession that starts when he buys a deerskin jacket (complete with fringe lining each sleeve) from an online ad. We don’t know much about him at this point (and don’t learn all that much about his backstory as the film progresses), other than he’s on his own and just spent every last Euro to his name on this jacket. When the seller gifts him a hand-held camcorder, Georges (as we learn he’s named) toys with the idea of being a filmmaker.
Anyone with a favorite pair of shoes, or a favorite dress or jeans might identify with Georges’s infatuation with his new jacket. But any similarities to Georges journey (hopefully) end there, as his attachment to this garment quickly tuns into something much more sinister. After he decides to hole up in the rural French town where he’s traveled to make the purchase, Georges (donning the jacket, of course) heads out to the local bar for a whiskey. A slow night, the bartender serves him without much fanfare, then goes to speak with a regular at the opposite end. Their conversation is nothing special, but Georges interrupts with a sly, overly-confident grin. “Are you talking about my jacket?” he asks. Understandably, one of the women responds, “Why would we be talking about your jacket?”
But Georges’s obsession has already taken hold, and soon the coat is speaking to him. Alone in the room he pawned his wedding ring to secure, the jacket starts telling Georges that it has a dream of being the only jacket in the world. Because everything about that sentence makes complete sense. But it does to Georges, and camera in hand, he starts convincing strangers in the small town to unwittingly hand over their jackets as part of a “scene.” All that footage in hand, when he learns that the bartender Denise (Adèle Haenel, most recently of Portrait of a Lady on Fire) is an amateur editor he strikes up a very creepy partnership to cut it all together.
Like Rubber, everything in Deerskin escalates quickly (the film is barely an hour and a half long), and it’s a credit to writer/director Dupieux that we can get so much out of such a brief glimpse into Georges and Denise’s lives. If you know next to nothing about the film before seeing it, Janko Nilovic’s tense, eery score will clue you in pretty quickly that something ominous is afoot. And sure enough, as Georges’s compulsions become more and more violent, its the sheer pointlessness of it all that makes it comical. Dujardin is a deadpan villain; nothing seems to register with him, unless it’s to do with the deerskin he’s so enamored with. And while Haenel may never top her riveting performance in Portrait, she’s nevertheless an able accomplice to Georges’s antics, at first skeptical but quickly not only intrigued by them but invested in them herself.
By the final moments of Dupieux’s brutal journey through one man’s inexplicable delusion and the lengths he goes to indulge it, seemingly nothing could top what we’ve witnessed along the way. And yet, he manages to conclude Deerskin in the only way possible: with a merciless shock that’s also entirely appropriate. There’s a lot to unpack here, from the crises that trigger Georges’s disturbing descent to Denise’s willingness to abet his treachery to the statement all of it makes on the obsessions each of us harbors despite their inherent absurdity. It all elicits a sort of dark humor that’s entertaining so long as it’s at arm’s length; allow any of it to hit closer to home and it might not be so funny after all.
Deerskin is now available via Gene Siskel Film Center’s “Film Center from Your Sofa;” a portion of your rental goes to support the theater.