Deerskin: A Cautionary Horror-Comedy for Our Times

Jean Dujardin in Deerskin. (Greenwich Entertainment)
Dupieux flays the derangement syndrome.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE D eerskin opened just before New York City’s COVID-19 lockdown began. At that time, it was impossible to relate the film’s absurdist plot to anything believable. Now, Kino Lorber’s digital and home-video release of Quentin Dupieux’s horror-comedy almost makes sense of the lockdown madness that has descended upon the world.

In a French countryside town that looks recognizably vacant and free of social standards — the opening sequence features several impressionable young people following an unlikely group ritual — a stranger arrives from the city. Georges (Jean Dujardin) seeks to purchase a vintage suede hunting jacket complete with hanging fringe. The seller, an old hermit, throws in a video recorder as an ominous Brothers Grimm–style talisman. Georges tapes himself — and his jacket — like a self-taught introvert.

When Georges shoots the local scenery, Dupieux lets the footage suggest alienation. This is a place without history, where conscious social memory has mostly been erased, replaced by a madman’s attempt at expressing his own wacky and irate egotism. Dupieux observes things in Georges’s own solipsistic terms until he meets a bartender, Denise (Adèle Haenel), who coincidentally shares his lunacy. “I edit,” she tells him. “I put Pulp Fiction in order.”

That’s when Deerskin’s bizarre conceit falls into place. Combining old and new fetish objects, traditional and modern obsessions, Dupieux assesses the moral retreat that has occurred ever since Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction opened Pandora’s Box.

This slyly paranoid art film proposes what cannot be put back in order — or, as an amateur filmmaker might think, rectified by pressing a rewind button. It defies back-to-roots, back-to-nature aspirations (our roots being torn down and vandalized now) and so goes forward into murderous madness.

Georges’s adventurer look, eventually completed with deerskin hat, boots, and pants, recalls James Fennimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales — defined by scholar Leslie Fiedler as symbolizing “what it is like to stand alone before nature, or in a city as appallingly lonely as any virgin forest.” The ruse Georges presents to Denise satirizes historical traits and conventions. His mental illness connects to a recognizable condition — for instance, the way that even formerly sensible people, since Trump Derangement Syndrome and compounded by COVID, have lost their moral compass and now advocate any kind of violence, destruction, and disobedience as long as it avenges their feelings of resentment and powerlessness.

Deerskin is the oddest French import since Bruno Dumont’s high comedy Slack Bay (2016), which satirized the escapist absurdity of elites living at the leisure resort of French president Emmanuel Macron. Dupieux sublates politics to convey a psychological, or maybe a spiritual, condition. Georges’s leather jacket casts an eerie spell like Marianne Jean-Baptiste’s red dress in Peter Strickland’s In Fabric, another contemporary horror-comedy focused on the texture of modern estrangement.

The temperamental visions of these eccentric films reveal the failures of mainstream movie culture, even as the streaming industry promotes a new frontier of content delivery and mindless bingeing consumption. Dupieux traces this back to how Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction signified an ethical and aesthetic revolution the world still has not overcome. When Denise compliments Georges that his in-progress movie “is like a mockumentary,” it’s a double-edged damnation. So is her Kubrickian praise “You did a nice tracking shot.” Dupieux mocks cinema’s false sophistication, yet he never panders like James Franco did in his utterly rank The Disaster Artist.

Deerskin also resembles Lars von Trier’s essay on today’s cultural and moral phenomenon in his “America”-set The House That Jack Built. What’s behind both films is the fact of Hollywood’s broken imagination — since Pulp Fiction and the infantilization of the Marvel Comics Universe, including Hollywood’s political conformity and PC indoctrination, which have surely contributed to the adolescent anomie, gullibility, and unrest now seen across the globe.

“You need to film closer,” Denise tells Georges. “I need more action. I need more blood.” She speaks for our violence-infatuated media, now fixated on scandal and character assassination. Georges and Denise have the scary, impassive rapport of Bonnie and Clyde (without sex). Dujardin and Haenel are such good actors that they walk the fine line of charming insanity. These characters are blank, people who have let themselves become ciphers. Georges surrenders to Denise’s insight with a look of true idiocy — like a TDS-addled Robert De Niro.

The town’s godless, robotized inhabitants — victims of Georges’s killing spree — seem complicit, unwilling to stand up against the unspeakable doings. If you watch Deerskin, you can draw the Black Lives Matter, Antifa, #Resistance parallels for yourself. I wanted Deerskin to answer my problems with modern fashion and the will to power. Instead, its craziness can only come close.

 

Armond White, a culture critic, writes about movies for National Review and is the author of New Position: The Prince Chronicles.

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