Until Deerskin came along, the ultimate cinematic love story between a man and an item of clothing must have been F.W.Murnau’s The Last Laugh (AKA. Der letze Mann). In this silent classic of 1924, a German doorman falls in love wth his uniform, suffering all the pangs of an abandoned suitor when he is laid off during the Weimar economic crash. Eventually he steals the uniform so he can at least pretend to be going to work every day.
The Last Laugh may seem far-fetched but it could pass as gritty realism in comparison to Quentin Dupieux’s tale of one man’s smouldering infatuation with a suede jacket. Murnau’s film used the uniform as a symbol of a desperate human need to cling to a stable identity in uncertain times. Without his uniform the doorman was nothing. The uniform was a recognisable badge of status, albeit a gesture in ‘bad faith’, as Jean-Paul Sartre would put it. The example Sartre provides is a waiter whose actions and self-perceptions are modelled on fixed ideas about what-waiters-do. When Murnau’s doorman gets the sack it’s as if he has been fired from existence itself.
Things are rather different for Georges (Jean Dujardin), the protagonist of Deerskin. When we meet him he is on a road trip in the French provinces. His first inexplicable act is to stop at a service station, where he takes off his old greeny-grey jacket and tries to flush it down the toilet. Already we suspect Georges is not about to impress us with his lucid intelligence. The technical term, “weirdo” springs to mind.
George’s destination is the house of the affable Monsieur B. who is selling him an old deerskin jacket with lots of fringes. It’s the kind of thing Neil Young used to wear back in his Buffalo Springfield days. When Georges tries it on it’s absurdly tight and too short, but he is enraptured. “Killer style!” is his oft-repeated verdict.
When Georges hands Monsieur B. more than 7,000 euros for this period piece, the vendor feels guilty and throws in a barely used digital camera as a bonus. Georges departs with two new obsessions.
A quick call to his wife in Paris ends with her telling Georges that he no longer exists. This is echoed by a pop song on the car radio, which chimes “n’existe pas, n’existe pas…” The problem is that his wife controls the purse strings and is cutting off his supply of cash. When Georges checks into a hotel he has to leave his wedding ring as security.
In a local bar Georges meets Denise (Adèle Haenel), a waitress who wants to be a film editor. Thinking of his new camera, Georges has already introduced himself as a filmmaker. He’s currently doing some solo shooting because his producers and the rest of the crew are in errr… Siberia. Georges needs Denise because she can lend him money, but his only true passion is for his deerskin jacket.
Together in his room, just the two of them, they speak fondly to each other and share their most intimate thoughts. The jacket tells Georges that its dream is to be the only jacket in the world. Georges confesses that it’s his dream to own the only jacket in the world. The fact that Georges has to supply both voices doesn’t detract from the keenness of the exchange.
This remarkable coincidence of interests sets Georges on an ambitious path. Using his newfound identity as a filmmaker he will pay people to hand over their jackets, as if they were rehearsing for a part in his movie. This also gives him some footage he can take back to Denise to keep her on-side.
It’s a big task to confiscate every jacket in the world, and Georges’s best efforts meet with constant, irritating resistance. His determination, however, is equal to the task, and Denise is encouraging him to shoot more scenes. It seems a perfectly natural move to become a serial killer, ready to dispose of anyone who refuses to hand over their jacket. As the bodies pile up Georges keeps adding to his wardrobe: a deerskin hat purloined from a corpse, a gift from Denise of a pair of deerskin pants, and finally some deerskin gloves.
If this description of Deerskin sounds bizarre, that’s a fair summation of a film that’s hardly more than a brief, twisted fairy tale, or a short story that harks back to the decadent French literature of the Belle Époque. Throw in a touch of surrealism, and the deadpan absurdity of late Luis Buñuel, and you have a study in fetishism that would challenge the interpretative powers of a school of psychoanalysts.
Jean Dujardin plays Georges as a man utterly dissociated from reality. We never learn where he conceived his fantasy about the deerskin jacket, but as soon as he puts it on, his entire life is transformed. He seems to have no sexual interest in Denise or any other woman, and views money only as a means of furthering his grand projet of ridding the world of upstart, rival jackets. We never see him rifling the pockets of his victims.
Dupieux’s reticence to tell us anything much about Georges’s background makes the character impossible to fathom. He is simply a man driven to extreme and desperate deeds through an inordinate love for a deerskin jacket. The film is also a parable about filmmaking, as Georges uses his camcorder as a way of exercising power over people. His deeds are not simply to satisfy the genocidal ambitions of his jacket, but to provide new material for Denise to edit. Murder and moviemaking advance in perfect tandem in a film that warns us of the fatal consequences of a fanatical pursuit of personal style.
Written & directed by Quentin Dupieux
Starring Jean Dujardin, Adèle Haenel, Albert Delpy, Marie Bunel, Laurent Nicolas, Pierre Gommé
France, rated MA 15+, 87 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 15 August, 2020