Deerskin – Fashion to die for in Quentin Dupieux’s dark comedy

Whether it’s a tyre that can blow people up with its ‘mind’ (Rubber, 2010), or a man searching for his missing dog via canine telepathy (Wrong, 2012), the work of filmmaker Quentin Dupieux has always dealt with the surreal, many moments in his films often playing out in random, dreamlike ways. Deerskin (Le daim, 2019) is no exception, Dupieux’s darkly humorous tale delving into the strange world of Georges (Jean Dujardin), a down-on-his-luck man who becomes obsessed with a new jacket that he buys for a hefty sum of money. Armed with a video camera that also got thrown into the deal, Georges finds himself in a small town in the middle of nowhere, his infatuation with his new clothing making him suddenly realise his ultimate life goal: to be the only person in the world to own a jacket. It’s a dream that the deerskin jacket is only too happy to help make come true, no matter how much it might cost Georges and the people around him.

In a lot of ways, this is very similar to Rubber, Dupieux revisiting that bizarre concept of the personification of an inanimate object and what happens to the humans who encounter it. While that was used literally in Rubber, the tyre joyfully rolling itself around to find its next victim, in Deerskin Dupieux hints that the life behind the object might actually all be in Georges’ head, this forlorn man initially using the clothing item as a way to feel less lonely. It starts out small, Georges spending a lot of time in front of the mirror so he can admire his “killer style”, or filming himself with that video camera as he narrates what he sees. But soon, he’s talking to himself as if it’s the jacket speaking back to him, the things it tells him to do becoming increasingly disturbing. With money quickly running out and his dream of being the only jacket-wearer a long way off, Georges starts to listen to the jacket’s suggestions, deciding to put that video camera to good use. And he’s not going to be using it to record a fashion show.

Jean Dujardin in Deerskin

With a ‘talking’ item of clothing and a character who may or may not be a madman, it’s surprising that what actually makes Deerskin so interesting is the realism behind it all, Dupieux always keen to keep this in the realm of possibility rather than his more peculiar offerings. Dupieux suggests throughout that Georges’ recent divorce (and probably a mid-life crisis) are what fuels most of his decisions, his purchase of the jacket enabling him to seek out a new identity in his mundane existence. And it works, Georges feeling himself becoming more significant as soon as he wears the jacket, his pride swelling whenever anyone notices it and even bringing it up when they don’t, such as when he wrongly assumes a barmaid (Adèle Haenel) and another woman are discussing him and his superb sense of style. It’s certainly something a lot of us can understand, this idea of purchasing new clothes to fix something else in our lives extremely relatable (whether we’d like to admit it or not). And it’s this relatability that keeps us so hooked to Georges throughout his journey, our sympathies always lying with him, no matter what dubious direction he’s heading in next. However, it’s Dujardin’s amazing performance which makes this concept work so well, his brilliantly comedic portrayal also hinting at a hidden misery that Georges tries to keep at bay after losing everything in his life. As the lies pile up and he starts to take money from that barmaid to finish his ‘film’ (she just so happens to be an editor), we can’t help but feel sorry for him, even when he turns to unsavoury methods to get what he wants.

Georges asks Denise (Adèle Haenel) for help

As with his other films, Dupieux skillfully walks that thin line between humour and darkness, filling his narrative with bizarre moments of comedy that we know we shouldn’t be laughing at, yet which are always hilarious. The strange, timeless setting of Dupieux’s story adds further to this surreal edge, the warm, brown colours he uses in every scene giving this an almost dreamlike feel at times – something that makes this fascinating to watch unfold. At just 77 minutes long, Deerskin doesn’t outstay its welcome too, Dupieux recognising that there’s only so much you can do with his simple concept before it becomes strained. And yet, the ending he conjures up is a little disappointing, his meaning clear enough (if a touch too literal), but the suddenness with which it happens leaving much to be desired. It’s also a shame that Dupieux (aka DJ Mr. Oizo) has chosen pre-existing songs for this rather than scoring it himself, especially when his stonking soundtrack for Rubber is what makes that film so rewatchable. Sure, the mellow disco hits he’s picked work well with Deerskin’s unusual tones and macabre happenings, but you can’t help wondering how perfect this would have been with Mr. Oizo’s beats accompanying Georges’ antics.

Although Deerskin sits comfortably alongside Dupieux’s other works, there’s a realistic aspect to the story that makes it particularly engrossing, the film a slightly more conventional outing for the writer-director as he works in intriguing ideas around identity and masculinity. Nonetheless, that surreal air is felt in every moment, from that timeless setting, to those random instances of humour, to Dujardin’s brilliant deadpan performance. It might not be as memorable as Dupieux’s other films, but Deerskin is still a wild ride while it’s happening.

(Originally posted on The Digital Fix: https://www.thedigitalfix.com/film/film_review/lff-2019-deerskin/)

square-eyed-geek’s Top Ten Films of 2020

For the longest time, I wasn’t going to write a top ten list this year. With the pandemic, lockdown, and closure of cinemas, it seemed almost fruitless to talk about the best new releases. Ironically though, when I looked back at what I’ve watched, I was surprised to find that I’ve actually seen a greater number of films than previous years. Indeed, in more ways than one, the world of film has been kept alive for all of us in 2020. Streaming platforms stepped up VOD so audiences could check out the latest releases in the safety of their own homes. And several festivals moved online (LFF, FrightFest, Soho Horror) – events that were determined to go ahead in an alternative way that suited everyone. Sure, it doesn’t beat a trip to the cinema (and as soon as it’s safe to do so, I’ll be the first one sat in front of that big silver screen), but it’s comforting to see people still come together (albeit online) and show their love for all things filmic, even in these uncertain times.

Despite this, I’m sure there will be a few titles missing from my top ten that others will have included on theirs. Releases like Saint Maud, His House, Rocks and Mank are still on my to-watch list, and would probably have made the grade if I’d had the time to see them before the end of the year! And as usual, I’ve also stuck to UK release dates to make things easier for myself, so a couple of LFF films that I loved but which haven’t officially come out over here yet (Another Round to name just one) will almost certainly be on my list in 2021.

With all that in mind, here’s my top ten films of 2020. And thank you in advance for reading!:

10. I’m Thinking of Ending Things

I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2020)

At first glance, this story about a woman (Jessie Buckley) going on a road trip with her boyfriend (Jesse Plemons) to meet his family (Toni Collette and David Thewlis) sounds like the set-up of a million other Hollywood dramas. But in writer-director Charlie Kaufman’s hands, this tale turns into something altogether weirder. Then again, what else do you expect from the man who gave us Synecdoche, New York (2008) and Anomalisa (2015)? Based on a book by Iain Reid, and with musings on time, loss, and sense of self, Kaufman lets his eccentric imagination run wild with the plot, creating a truly bizarre and oddly humorous film that gradually becomes more unsettling as the young woman (Buckley in a perfect lead role) starts to question things around her. And that’s BEFORE the dance sequence. The result is very much like a waking nightmare – hard to turn away from, even though you want to.

9. Possessor

Possessor (2020)

After his brilliant feature debut (Antiviral (2012)), writer-director Brandon Cronenberg returns to the screen with this trippy, futuristic tale about a female assassin (Andrea Riseborough) who uses other people’s bodies to carry out hits. But with a crumbling family life and her mind already feeling adrift, her latest mission becomes fraught with problems, the host (Christopher Abbott) she’s taken over proving harder to control than she initially thought. A sci-fi rooted in realism, Cronenberg explores rich themes around identity and power while injecting his film with stunning, hypnotic visuals that put us in the assassin’s decaying point-of-view (the scene with the host procedure is particularly incredible). It’s a startling, ultra gory (with good reason) body horror featuring two striking performances from Riseborough and Abbott (who essentially plays dual roles). Here’s hoping Cronenberg doesn’t embark on another 8 year hiatus after this, as it’ll be very interesting to see what he does next.

8. Mangrove

Mangrove (2020)

To get not just one, but FIVE new Steve McQueen films this year was an absolute joy. Although each one is sublime in its own right, it’s Mangrove that stands out the most – a powerful, intricate look at the true story of The Mangrove Nine, who stood trial in 1970 after a protest against racial prejudice ended in a clash with police. With a script written by Alastair Siddons and McQueen himself, this tackles the issues of racism and police brutality in a stark, unforgiving light, yet never loses sight of the sense of community and hope that binds the group on trial together – something that helps them keep going when everything seems lost. Made all the more realistic by McQueen’s vivid direction and the wonderful portrayals from the cast (especially Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright and Malachi Kirby), this is a truly beautiful film, and a vital one as well.

7. Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)

While documenting her father’s recent illness and looking back on his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson also delves into that tricky subject at the back of everyone’s mind: death. But how do you tackle that when it’s your own family member you’re talking about? Well, Johnson’s solution is to invent and film different scenarios in which her Dad (Dick Johnson of the title) might die, and get him to act in them. With the help of a few stunt doubles of course. That ingenious idea, coupled with the touching relationship between Kirsten and her father, results in this surprisingly funny, vibrant documentary – a film full of heart that doesn’t shy away from other difficult matters, mainly how challenging and painful a disease dementia can be. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry and you’ll have the biggest smile on your face as you listen to the (many) anecdotes about Dick’s brilliant life.

6. Waves

Waves (2019)

Although I saw this back in 2019 at LFF, it didn’t get a release in the UK until early this year, albeit a very limited one (a shame as this is a film worth the hype). Trey Edward Shults’ story about a young man (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) struggling with everyday pressures and his father’s (Sterling K. Brown) expectations is an effective, realistic film that packs several emotional gut-punches that you don’t see coming. Brought to life by Shults’ perfect script and the effortless performances from the whole cast (particularly Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell) this is a captivating tale to watch unfold, made all the more mesmerising by Shults’ exhilarating direction and the pulsing soundtrack (as well as an incredible original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). As such, Waves is the sort of film that immediately grabs you and doesn’t let go until its final frames, pulling you along on a breathtaking ride throughout. Seek it out if you can – you won’t regret it.

(Read my Digital Fix review of Waves here).

5. The Personal History of David Copperfield

The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019)

This take on the Charles Dickens’ classic succeeds in being both faithful to the source material and wildly inventive – something that lifts Armando Iannucci’s film above other adaptations of Dickens’ work. Following the titular hero (Dev Patel) as he navigates the pitfalls of Victorian England and tries to forge a name for himself, this is a funny yet also surprisingly poignant portrayal, especially when the threat of poverty begins to loom ever closer to Copperfield and those around him. The script by Simon Blackwell and Iannucci is superb, that delicate balance between comedy and tragedy held perfectly throughout, while Iannucci’s imaginative direction plays with visual storytelling techniques, giving this a wonderfully surreal edge. The cast are all clearly having the time of their lives in this too, the hilarious highlights being Tilda Swinton as a donkey-hating great-aunt and Hugh Laurie as a man obsessed with the beheading of Charles the Second. But it is Dev Patel who is the standout, his brilliant turn as Copperfield adding pathos and charm to the story.

4. The Invisible Man

The Invisible Man (2020)

This will always have a significant place for me on this list, as it was the last film I saw in a cinema before lockdown. But beyond that, The Invisible Man is simply an exceptional, terrifying horror that keeps you guessing right until the end credits. Taking the original tale and giving it a contemporary twist, Leigh Whannell creates a film full of tension and dread, as one woman (Elisabeth Moss) tries to escape the clutches of an ex (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) who may (or may not) be able to turn invisible. It is entirely to Whannell’s credit that this slightly ridiculous plot is completely believable, his excellent script building on that awful sense of paranoia, while his expert direction uses empty spaces to queasy, unsettling effect, hinting at something unseen watching her (and us). With a powerhouse performance from Moss and several WTF moments that will make you leap out of your seat, this is one of the best thrillers of recent years and an absolute must-watch.

3. Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019)

Set in the late 18th century on the remote French coast, writer-director Céline Sciamma explores the relationship between a painter (Noémie Merlant) and her female subject (Adèle Haenel) in this beautiful, moving drama. As the portrait slowly comes together, the women find themselves unexpectedly drawn to each other, Sciamma heightening the tension between the pair to great effect, all pointed glances and lingering touches made even more evocative by Merlant and Haenel’s electrifying portrayals. It’s hypnotising to watch unfold, Sciamma’s dreamy direction turning both the landscapes and interiors into deliciously inviting spaces, these gorgeous visuals perfectly matched by the haunting soundtrack (the highlight of which is the song on the beach). As such, this is a superbly crafted, poetic film that stays in your mind for a long time after seeing it.

2. Parasite

Parasite (2019)

Funny, playful yet wildly intelligent, Bong Joon-ho’s film really did deserve all of those Oscars it received at the start of 2020. Exploring themes of capitalism, social constructs and class inequality, Bong’s story about a working class family charming their way into a wealthy household is the kind of film that requires repeat viewings to catch all the subtleties you missed. However, there’s nothing quite like seeing it for the first time and being blindsided by those amazing twists and turns. Featuring excellent performances from the cast (especially Song Kang-Ho as the put-upon father and Cho Yeo-jeong as the naïve mother who invites the family into her life) Bong’s multi-layered tale is hilarious, but also startlingly sad at times, often when you least expect it. An outstanding, gripping film that is full of unforgettable moments.

1. Relic

Relic (2020)

Although horror might not be everyone’s favourite genre, you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you miss this one from writer-director Natalie Erika James. With an exquisite script by James and co-writer Christian White, their story follows an elderly woman (Robyn Nevin) and her family (Emily Mortimer and Bella Heathcote) as they struggle to cope with the debilitating effects of dementia – the isolation, the claustrophobia. And, of course, the fear. James uses lingering shots to eke out the tension and build on the eeriness in the creepy family home, shadowy rooms seeming to hide a wealth of forgotten memories, and a few other terrifying things. However, while the scares are plentiful, it’s the emotional scenes that give the film its real impact, the wonderfully poignant performances from Nevin, Mortimer and Heathcote heightening these moments and turning it into something truly compelling. With the narrative unravelling at a delicate pace, this is a chilling, atmospheric, and utterly devastating film that gets under your skin. Indeed, as someone who has a dementia sufferer in the family, Relic hit me hard. But it’s this honest, touching portrayal of such an insidious disease that makes this so effective, James taking care to show the price many families pay because of it, as well as how impossible it is to escape from (in more ways than one).

(Read my review of Relic here).

(Films that just missed out on the top ten: Uncut Gems, Queen & Slim, The Vast of Night, The Truth, Red, White and Blue, Bacurau, Swallow, Shirley, Hamilton).

And that’s it for another top ten films list. Thank you for taking the time to read it! And stay safe everyone. Here’s hoping that 2021 will be a much brighter year for all of us.

(As always, post a comment below if there’s anything you think I left out of my top ten, or if there’s any films I’ve included that also make your 2020 list!).