From the moment Georges (Jean Dujardin) steps into the frame of Quentin Dupieux’s weirdo pseudo-western horror hybrid “Deerskin,” there’s something off about him. Maybe it’s his uneasy gait or shifty eyes, but just watching him can make you a little nervous. That strangeness only intensifies under the influence of a newly purchased vintage deerskin jacket.
Like Peter Strickland’s luridly violent “In Fabric” or Chuck Russell’s comedy “The Mask,” “Deerskin” is the story of an article of clothing with a mind of its own. The film, which premiered at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival and is now receiving a virtual-cinema release in place of its canceled theatrical opening, asks if the inanimate object is influencing its owner to destroy all the jackets in a small town so that it can be the only one, or was Georges’ madness merely unlocked with its acquisition?
As Dupieux’s thriller descends into Georges’ madness, his eccentric acts escalate to violence; his lies to local townsfolk evolve into more outlandish claims. In this new town, Georges decides to remake himself into a person who looks worthy of a fringed deerskin jacket, so he tells anyone who will listen he’s a film director. One figure who either sees through his mid-life crisis or chooses to ignore it for her own gains is a bartender and aspiring filmmaker, Denise (Adele Haenel, hot off of her “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” fame), who befriends Georges in the hopes of editing his movie.
Georges cooks up more lies to explain away questions about his money, his skills and why he’s really there. The jacket convinces Georges to destroy all the other jackets until it is the only one left, the people within those jackets be damned.
Despite playing an odd, mad villain, Dujardin (best known for his Oscar-winning performance in “The Artist”) remains dangerously charming. He’s a bit clumsy but wholly unapologetic when confronted by others about his weird behavior and lack of funds. And that’s even before his obsession with his jacket gives him a real twisted sense of entitlement. Georges then becomes sensitive to other people’s opinions about his jacket, his insecurity and narcissism eventually leading to some very awkward exchanges.
Dujardin’s character is a man trying to regain control of his life through lying and establishing himself as someone important. He claims to be a filmmaker without knowing the first thing about movies. His lies to protect this persona he’s created become more unwieldy as the movie continues. The stereotype for men in mid-life crisis is to shell out too much money for a too-fast car. This one buys a sweet jacket and kills innocent strangers.
Following the stylish mountain man as he reverts to his base, feral nature, the movie itself feels sparse, almost minimalistic. It’s stripped down to its barest essentials, just a crazed individual under the influence of the illusion of masculine power.
The hotel where Georges stays is made of wood and white walls, with only the faintest of decorations or features. For its size, the town feels half-occupied, all the easier for Georges to do away with his crimes when things really get messy. And Janko Nilovic’s eerie score mixes a brass and piano concoction that can bring chills at the end of the most benign scenes.
Dupieux also handles the film’s cinematography, giving the events a sickly, washed-out look that makes rolling green hills seem faded and blue skies a pastel shade. Yet, there’s a warmth in the browns of Georges’ jacket and other woodsy aspects of his surroundings. They’re the only parts of the frame that still look alive.
There’s a subgenre of horror movies that deal with what inanimate objects have to say about us. Even before things get creepy, there’s so much symbolism wrapped up in what we choose to wear and how we present ourselves to the world.
In a way, “Deerskin” is a dark love story about a man and his vintage jacket. He’s smitten with it, longingly looking at the jacket’s fringe lining and buckles in awe. He also sees the potential it has to catch people’s eyes and give him the attention he so desperately craves. Maybe we even feel for him a little bit, but then that obsession corrupts and speaks to his insecurity about a life with no prospects.
It’s his need to feel special and important, a need many of us have, that makes “Deerskin” so unnerving.