The hero of Deerskin utters the same exclamation each time he acquires a new piece of clothing. When Georges (Jean Dujardin) lays eyes on the fringed, vintage coat he’s driven miles away to see, he says in disbelief, “Cent pour cent daim!” — that is, in English, “100 percent suede!”
The kind of euphoria he expresses for an ill-fitting garment confirms our sense that Georges is an eccentric and slightly unhinged character. The writer and director Quentin Dupieux introduces the idea that he’s off in the film’s first scene, which finds Georges shoving his green corduroy blazer down a gas station toilet.
As he leaves the restroom, Georges’ gut is at the center of the frame. This is a portrait of a man who’s gone soft. Leading the way forward, his stomach, tightly tucked into a pale blue button down shirt, is cinched in place by a belt buckle. This Georges has nothing in common with George Valentin, whom Dujardin played in the 2011 Oscar-winning film, The Artist.
His wilting mustache indicates little of that character’s Classic Hollywood charm and panache. The bleak humor on screen in Deerskin shares some of the same sensibility as the perverse mockumentary Man Bites Dog (1992). In both movies, we watch unhinged men disintegrate. His blazer isn’t the only thing going down the toilet.
As in many crime films, the serial killer’s gun was the fetishistic object in Man Bites Dog. In Deerskin, it’s a fawn-colored, suede jacket that starts “talking” to Georges, its new owner. Dupieux reveals only one clue about the life this character led before he switched jackets. It comes in a single telephone call that he makes to his wife. She responds to him with one disheartening sentence, “You no longer exist.” Experiencing the end of a marriage is brutal, but when she omits the qualifying phrase, “to me,” she’s also condemning his very existence. This conversation accelerates the weird splitting of his personality.
The call takes place towards the beginning of the film as Georges is settling into a rural hotel in the mountains. On his first night in town, he puts his new coat on and admires himself in a full-length mirror. He puffs up and seems to see the reflection of a John Wayne-cowboy in fancy Western gear. The audience sees someone else. The jacket is too snug, too short and some fifty years out of fashion. He looks silly, like a boy playing dress up. But for him, clothes make the man. Or, as In Fabric put it — a recent horror film about a haunted dress — “The dress is your image, onto what you project, through an illusion.”
Grimm’s fairy tales say that the totemic object will give the person wearing it special powers. But they also go on to demonstrate that gaining those powers comes with consequences. Georges has forgotten that part of the pact. The jacket inspires him to walk with a more confident, if delusional, stride. He enters a bar, and, addressing two women nearby says, “I bet you’re talking about my jacket.” No Georges, no they’re not. But they humor him for a little while, including the bartender Denise (Adèle Haenel) who sees right through him.
No matter where she is you can tell that Denise is always the smartest person in the room. When Georges tells her he’s a filmmaker in town on a shoot, she tells him that she’s been trained as a film editor. It immediately becomes clear to her that Georges is lying. He doesn’t know the first thing about making movies. Haenel draws in a deep breath after clocking his inexperience, pausing to figure out her next move. Denise looks nothing like the 18th-century character Haenel played in last year’s Portrait of a Lady on Fire but you recognize the same emotional intelligence and fierce determination in her. She knows exactly what she wants from Georges and how to get it.
The first half of Deerskin is a black comedy with the potential of becoming a rueful character study. But Dupieux takes an easier way out. The jacket, like a demented ventriloquist’s dummy, tells Georges to get rid of every other jacket on the planet. He interprets this request as giving him license to murder the unsuspecting, jacket-wearing populace. The director drops any realistic attempt to profile one lonely guy’s psychology in favor of a Grand Guignol horror show. Unfortunately, Dupieux doesn’t always strike the right balance with his transition from humor to horror. For a masterful blend of that genre, the TV series What We Do in the Shadows pulls off that sleight of hand. Vampires have never been this droll as they suck the blood out of their neighbors’ veins.
Dujardin initially inspires sympathy for Georges. His quest for a protective second skin makes sense after the end of his marriage. He finds a matching hat, pants, gloves and boots — all 100 percent suede! But in his case clothes don’t make the man. They’re a poor defense against people like Denise who see the world without any illusions.