“Deerskin,” written and directed by Quentin Dupieux, is a loopy entertaining WTF lark. It’s like a cross between “Barton Fink” and “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” — the study of a desolate loner sunk into obsession, and the more we study him the more out there his obsession becomes. Yet the weirdest element of the movie is, paradoxically, the most normal: The central character (for long stretches, he’s the only character) is played by Jean Dujardin, the blazingly charismatic star of “The Artist,” the “OSS: 117” films, and (in smaller roles) “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “Monuments Men.” Dujardin is the sort of leading man who likes to mix it up, and in “Deerskin” he gives an adventurous downbeat performance that tosses vanity — and sanity — right out the window.
The movie opens with a series of young people placing their jackets in a car trunk, repeating the line “I swear never to wear a jacket as long as I live.” We think we’re watching some eccentric environmental vow. But no. Moments later, we meet Georges (Dujardin), a handsome, slightly chunky-looking middle-aged man with a graying beard, hair swept back and a general air of fretful distraction. At a roadside restroom, he takes off his corduroy jacket and tries to flush it down the toilet, which (surprise) doesn’t work. He then drives into the countryside and arrives at a mansion, where the hippie geezer inside sells him a vintage deerskin jacket for 8,000 euros. Georges is a few hundred euros short, but the geezer doesn’t mind. He accepts the cash and tosses into the bargain an old digital video camera, which now seems as archaic as a Victrola.
The jacket is the fetish object around which the movie is built, and it’s one of those suede numbers from the ’60s, with long fringes hanging down from the arms, chest and back. Ten years ago, cued to the 40th anniversary of Woodstock, I received a promotional copy of a box-set DVD re-release of Michael Wadleigh’s documentary that came in a miniature mockup of one of those jackets; that’s how iconic it is. The jacket in “Deerskin” looks like the sort of the thing David Crosby would have worn for three months without taking it off. Putting it on in a state of ecstasy, Georges gazes at his image in the mirror and says, “Stoking! Killer style.”
The fact that he thinks so is the first sign that he’s got a screw loose. For he looks ridiculous. The jacket is too small for his bulky frame, and it doesn’t mesh at all with his wardrobe, which consists of a neutral office shirt and what looks like the French version of chinos. As attractive as Dujardin is, in that jacket Georges looks like a corporate nerd gone slumming, and what’s even stranger is that he doesn’t evince any particular nostalgia for the 1960s. The fact that the jacket is made of deerskin is what matters to him. He doesn’t want to be David Crosby. It’s more like he wants to be Daniel Boone.
Georges, we learn, has just split up with his wife. So it seems like he’s playing out some existential midlife crisis of cracked masculinity. At an isolated country inn, he tells the desk clerk that his credit card isn’t working and gives him his wedding ring as collateral; he then learns that he’s been blocked from his bank account, which throws him into the first of many rages. Then he starts talking to his new jacket. Literally carrying on a conversation with it. (He does both voices.) It’s at this point that it starts to dawn on you that “Deerskin” isn’t a portrait of warped male identity — it’s the story of a madman. And the movie, in its deadpan way, is as nutty as he is.
“Deerskin” is a warped fable of no great consequence, though the fact that it holds you, for 77 minutes, is a testament to the debauched rigor of Dupieux’s filmmaking. He shot and edited the film, and he works in a meticulous, realistic, blow-by-blow style, leading the audience, right along with Georges, into a vortex of weirdly logical irrationality (i.e., the mind of a psychopath). George starts to film himself, and his beloved jacket, with the camcorder, and when the bartender at the mostly abandoned local bar asks him what he does, he tells her he’s a filmmaker. And he becomes one. Sort of.
The bartender’s name is Denise, and she’s played by Adèle Haenel, the captivating star of the Dardenne brothers’ “The Unknown Girl,” who here creates a portrait of a cool moony young woman whose trusting nature is based on her having spent too much time in the provinces. She wants to be a film editor, and has practiced the art by re-editing real films, like “Pulp Fiction,” which she put in chronological order (“It sucked!”). Georges, telling her that he’s got a crew stranded in Siberia, hands her all his footage, which is enough to convince her that the project is real. She cleans out her account to bankroll the film, yet there’s no system to Georges’ con. Piece by piece, he acquires more deerskin clothing — a hat, fringed pants (a gift from Denise), even gloves — and then, when he’s ready, or maybe just when he’s hit rock bottom, he pulls a fan down from the ceiling, removes one blade, and finds, at last, his true calling.
Dujardin invests all this with a conviction so unhinged it’s funny. Yet “Deerskin” is probably destined to play better at a film festival than it will in the real world. Dupieux, who once made a movie about a homicidal tire (“Rubber”), is a dark-spirited huckster fantasist who sees filmmaking as a grand game of toying with our expectations. You can’t take his movies seriously — or, rather, you can, but I wouldn’t recommend it. He has an arrested sensibility. Yet he also has talent. If he ever decides to make a movie about something more than pranking the audience, it could land with an explosion.