Most French pupils encounter Balzac’s novel, La Peau de Chagrin, at some point in their education. It’s about as close as Balzac gets to the Grimm brothers: a fairytale about a man who is given an animal skin that grants his every wish, but with each satisfied desire, the skin shrinks, shortening his life. Balzac’s book is about how desire begets desire, and a similar thread runs through Quentin Dupieux’s dark and profoundly weird film, Deerskin. This tale too is about a man enthralled by an animal pelt: in this case, a piece of deerskin sewn and tassled into a caramel-coloured monstrosity. Jean Dujardin (The Artist) plays Georges, a craggily handsome loner who buys the coat off a bloke on the internet for 7,000 euros. The film charts Georges’s deepening infatuation with the jacket, which reaches such a pitch that his personality splits, Gollum-style, and he ends up being bossed around by the coat.
This isn’t Dupieux’s first gander into objectophilia: his cult 2010 film Rubber is about a tyre that comes to life and goes on a murderous rampage. Dupieux isn’t much interested in undergirding his absurdist flights of fancy with meaning or morals – while Deerskin could be interpreted as a film about a lonely man having a midlife crisis after his wife dumps him, it can just as legitimately be seen as a story about a guy who just really rates his coat.
Georges is soon joined in his jacket racket by Denise (Adele Haenel), a local bartender from the village he’s staying at while his affair with the coat gets underway. Denise is an aspiring filmmaker and believes Georges when he says he’s in the area to make a movie. (Georges lies, a lot, often for no reason). Denise will do anything to get a break in the film industry, so she offers to help out. Georges does have a crappy handheld camera with him – a freebie that the jacket seller threw in as a present – so the unlikely duo start making a painfully indie flick about the coat that Georges has fallen for.
Haenel dazzled in Portrait of a Lady on Fire and is pretty much perfect here as a round-eyed ingénue whose life has become so threadbare she’ll do anything to change it up. The landscape in the film offers a satisfying riposte to traditional depictions of rural France as idyllic, grapey and sun-soaked. Here the hills are dun and featureless, the villages ugly and the cloud coverage overhead perpetual. When Georges starts to con innocents into giving up their own coats – so that his can become the only jacket on earth – the film tautens to Ionesco-style horror. This transition is successful largely thanks to Janko Nilović’s brilliant score, which adds antique Hitchcockian class to the silliness of the central plot.
It’s a funny film. The best scenes are when Georges is out and about, convincing unfortunates to hand over their coats so that his can reign supreme. Despite the bad fit – the jacket is too short and George too corpulent for it – he is convinced he has been conferred with a ‘style de malade’ (killer style), and gradually he acquires other hideous deerskin clothing to seal his transformation. But the film is painful to watch, too – violence, when it erupts, is banal and shocking, and George’s displays of pathetic egotism are often almost unendurable. Still, at a tight 77 minutes, the film packs a punch that most films twice its length fail to.
Deerskin is in cinemas nationwide from Friday 16th July
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