It’s just a jacket, a Western-style suede coat that’s the color of lightly varnished wood. The most notable aspect is the fringe, which lends it a distinct Wild West feeling — you could picture Buffalo Bill Cody stalking a bison while wearing it. Its previous owner claims the garment is 100-percent deerskin; he removed the tag that said “Made in Italy,” so you’ll have to take his word on that. You can see how this would have been the height of manly fashion in the late 1800s, and it takes a certain type of guy to pull a jacket like that off in the 21st century. Georges (The Artist‘s Jean Dujardin) is not one of those guys.
Still, the middle-aged gent digs this monument to frontier-masculine chic. Whether Georges ended up in the small town he’s temporarily calling home in order to purchase it or he simply happened to come across the opportunity to nab the outerwear while passing through is unknown — though he’s clearly running away from something. (We find out he had a wife, and that she’s closed down their joint checking account. He uses his wedding ring as collateral to pay for the motel he’s staying at.) But Georges already stuffed his old sports coat into a gas-station toilet, and the seller is throwing in a free digital camcorder, so why not? It’s such a cool look, after all. Hell, he should get more deerskin clothing to complement his latest wardrobe addition. (Spoiler alert: He does.)
Then Georges starts having conversations with the jacket (he does both the voices, but there’s definitely a back and forth happening, so hey, all good!) and the jacket keeps telling him that he needs to be the king of all the jackets, and if Georges has to lie, cheat, steal and even murder to make that dream a reality then so be it — because a man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do to keep his jacket happy! And you start to wonder if maybe, just maybe, this miracle garment is going to turn an already-in-progress midlife crisis into a full psychotic break with reality. (Spoiler alert: It will.)
French writer-director Quentin Dupieux’s debut was the instant cinema du wackadoo classic Rubber (2010) — still the single greatest movie ever about a killer car tire with a mind of its own — so it’s tempting to assume that his coat is actually some sort of haunted couture, commanding our hapless hero to do its hellish bidding. What’s happening here isn’t paranormal but psychological, however, which makes those scenes of Dujardin earnestly discussing the desire of his “teammate” to be “the only jacket in the world” funny … and way more disturbing. Dupieux has always been a filmmaker who likes welding the uncomfortably weird and the wonderfully absurd together, and he’s happy to let this scenario of a pathetic, pathological liar of a man who puffs himself up play out like a cringe-comedy for a while. (The director has a fine collaborator in Dujardin, an actor who usually weaponizes his cartoonishly matinee-idol mug in the name of broad shtick but demonstrates killer deadpan chops here.) But even when Georges is trying to act smooth despite looking like the missing link between Davy Crockett and late-’60s David Crosby, you can see that Deerskin is laying the ground for something sinister. There’s a sense of menace in his flop-sweat desperation, as well as some cleverly meta aspects to what’s going on.
Because this isn’t just a movie about unstable, unmoored men trying to get their mojo back — it’s also about a horror film about moviemaking. Stuck in a rut with time on his hands, Georges starts to fiddle around with the camcorder that came with the jacket. Butting into a conversation at the bar he hangs out at (“Are you talking about my jacket? I’m just used to it getting noticed…”), he tells the bartender, Denise (Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Adèle Haenel) that he’s a filmmaker. Coincidentally, she wants to become an editor; working at the tavern is just a temporary thing until she can get her career started. Georges says his producers are in Siberia, so could she lend him money and they’ll reimburse her later? Meanwhile, he’s using the camera to film people vowing to never wear jackets ever again, before taking their coats and driving away. When Denise sees the initial footage, she goes from skeptical to enthusiastic: Oh, I get it, it’s a mockumentary about how one’s clothing is a shell. And when Georges’ scenes start to include stalking and the aggressive use of sharp objects, she finds herself taking a more active role in literally and figuratively calling the shots. Like the blind Mrs. Stephens says in Peeping Tom: All this filming isn’t healthy.
Nothing’s healthy in Deerskin, however — not angry men with entitlement issues, not taking a fetish for fringe to some quasi-fascist extremes, not the ways you can use a camera to trick people or lord power over them, and certainly not the way cinema(nia) can become a contagion. If this pitch-black comedy seems perilously close to falling apart under the weight of its creator’s ambitions and near-camp aesthetic (a common problem with even the best of Dupieux’s work), it also comes at a type of delusional alpha dudes in the most gleefully caustic of ways. The jacket is a joke, until it isn’t. Georges’ new mission in life seems ridiculous, until it doesn’t. And you might forget that France doesn’t have a lock on toxic males who use media technology to turn their insecurities into something truly horrific, until you remember they don’t.