When you hear someone say that such-and-such a movie could only have come from the French film industry, that tends to mean some impossibly sophisticated metropolitan comedy of intellectuals having dinner parties and extramarital sex. It doesn’t usually mean a macabre story about a middle-aged man suffering a midlife breakdown resulting in a psychotic obsession with his new deerskin jacket, which he thinks is talking to him and basically encouraging him to kill people. But this is the case with this entirely bizarre, uncompromisingly silly and intensely French horror-comedy from film-maker Quentin Dupieux, who is a DJ known as Mr Oizo and had a huge hit in 1999 with Flat Beat. He also has form with creating weirdo films about inanimate objects attaining strange significance: Rubber, from 2010, was about a rubber tyre that comes to life and (inevitably) kills people.
Deerskin, though, wouldn’t be anything without its lead: the strangely poignant figure of Jean Dujardin, who became a world-class player 10 years ago with Michel Hazanavicius’s Oscar-winning silent-movie tribute The Artist: he had also shown he had comedy skills with his appearance in the spy spoof OSS 117 movies. Since then, perhaps because of his indifference to mastering English, Dujardin became a non-export French star, but in Deerskin he attains a strange sort of complexity and maturity. He plays Georges, a preposterous guy who, somehow as innocent as a child, albeit a particularly obnoxious sort of child, hasn’t the first idea of what is happening to him. Having apparently split with his wife, he drives into a remote region of France to buy a deerskin jacket for an absurdly large amount of money from someone who has advertised it online. Despite being patently too small and too short for him, the fringed jacket absolutely delights Georges, and he is thrilled also with the “bonus” that its original owner has thrown in: a digital video camera.
Once holed up in a local hotel, Georges befriends Denise (Adèle Haenel) who works behind the bar and, discovering that she is an amateur film editor, persuades her to help edit the film that he has decided he is making and to make her life savings available to him, all without any idea of what a film-maker does. But he has a concept: inspired by his belief in the utter superiority of his beloved deerskin jacket, and the associated conviction that no one else in the world should be allowed to wear a jacket of any kind, he nonetheless sets out to shoot a documentary of people throwing away their jackets, and afterwards he kills them.
It’s all very wacky and quirky and bizarre, and with a different cast it might have been insufferable. To be honest, it is pretty close to being insufferable as it is. But Dujardin – with his great open, handsome face, a little weathered by time and by a very ageing beard – sells it. There is something charming, sad, scary and also hilarious about him, all at the same time, as he pretends to be a big-shot movie director in front of Denise and reveals with every word what a sociopath and a fraud he actually is. And Haenel is excellent as well, playing it completely straight.
Soon, Georges is to acquire a deerskin hat and a pair of sleek deerskin trousers: a complete deerskin outfit that he wears around the place like Hannibal Lecter wearing his victims’ skin. In fact, the film itself, with its washed-out beigey palette, has a deerskin look. And where are the police in all this or indeed the media, given that his murders are amateurish and more or less unconcealed? They are nowhere. Their absence is part of the film’s deadpan effect. The richness and strangeness of the comedy is somehow simply down to Dujardin’s frowningly serious and haughty face.