After annoying the hell out of the world's pop pickers in the guise of one-hit wonder Mr. Oizo, writer-director Quentin Dupieux announced himself as the French cinema's #1 ideas man, while ranking roughly #167 for execution. 2010's wonky road movie Rubber, concerning the misadventures of a homicidal car tyre, proved less funny over the long haul than it sounds; 2018's Keep an Eye Out! was an offbeam police procedural that conspicuously fell to pieces just as the case in question appeared to be closing. Now we have Deerskin, Dupieux's midlife crisis movie, which feels like a step in the right direction. It stars Jean Dujardin, that great farceur, as Georges, a just-divorced greybeard throwing off one element in his life for another, fresher model, in a manner both pathetic and invariably amusing. The conceptual twist is that the element in question isn't a mate, rather an item of outerwear. In scene one, we watch as Georges brusquely deposits his old corduroy jacket - perhaps a gift from his ex? - in a service-station toilet. In scene two, he takes delivery of a tasselled deerskin number, whereupon he checks himself into a mountain lodge and strives to reinvent himself as a hip young gunslinger. How obsessed is he with this new addition to his wardrobe? Put it like this: he bids a fond goodnight to it whenever he turns off the bedside light. Worse follows when the jacket starts talking back to him.
It's a relatively simple set-up, but there are fascinating ideas beneath the film's surface, not least the suggestion this might well be Dupieux's most personal work to date - the work of a creative envisioning the pitfalls lying in wait for him as he enters middle age. Along with the deerskin jacket - worn as proudly as the peacock wears its feathers - Georges inherits a digital video camera, which he begins to wield as the cowboy does his gun, as a means of reasserting his declining authority and potency. Dupieux smartly shifts this great weight of ridiculousness onto the broad shoulders of Dujardin, an actor with proven form in the field of playing narcissistic dolts (the OSS films, The Artist); the more money he's had to play with, the better this filmmaker has become at pairing up stars with concepts. Dujardin senses the absurdity in this one, and goes full throttle for it: he makes Georges' yarnspinning about entirely fictional encounters in the screen trade engaging enough for anyone to believe them, and he flat-out savours those shots of this doofus checking himself out in a mirror or shop window. The actor doesn't disappear into this role, as a Day-Lewis type might have done, so much as make a whopping great meal of it, and then sit there with a vast, self-satisfied, very funny grin on his face. You and I, however, might sense that this deerskin is but a cover-up, and it's that camo that Dupieux sees through over the course of these 77 minutes. Rest assured this is hardly the most triumphant reinvention, no matter that Georges soon acquires a deerskin hat and boots to go with his topcoat.
Which is to say the joke, this time round, has some structure to it; unlike Dupieux's previous film-skits, Deerskin is a doodle that develops, in pleasing, unexpected and finally rewarding ways. Georges strikes us as bad news when he checks into this lodge - with its vague echoes of The Overlook - but you really need to see for yourself what he does with a prong from his ceiling fan. That he gets away with it comes as more of a surprise, but in 2021, we may be more aware than ever that this is what some men do. (The presence of the no-nonsense Adèle Haenel, recently repositioned at the forefront of France's #MeToo movement, seems telling.) Still, Dupieux's primary ambition here is to less to make us think (a bonus) than make you laugh, and Deerskin made me laugh more than any other screen comedy in a long while. It's funny that, even when placed on a hanger, the jacket lurks in the corner of the frame, like a tarnished conscience or the Gallic equivalent of Annabelle; it's hilarious that Georges should at some point decide owning this jacket isn't enough - that he should, in fact, take all other jackets off the market, and to go to quite extraordinary lengths to achieve this. Dupieux's own, pleasurably musty cinematography suggests the essence of this desperate old man and his bloody jacket has started to rub off onto the world beyond them, though a killer punchline reasserts its own form of cosmic justice. Approach it as a good joke, well told - and that well told bit speaks to the progression that makes Deerskin Dupieux's most complete and satisfying film to date.
Deerskin previews in Cineworld cinemas this Wednesday, before opening in selected cinemas from Friday.