There are movies featuring killer outfits, and then there is Deerskin. This horror-comedy is about a man so obsessed with his deerskin jacket that he embarks on a, patently unrealistic, campaign to be the only jacket wearer in the world. It is a slight premise, an elevator-pitch ‘gotcha’ concept or, more charitably, a short-story turned to film. However, it’s also a very entertaining premise, and one that is fun to see unfurl over the film’s 77 minutes (even if there’s not much furled in the first place). The film’s reach may be slight but there is pleasure in giving you just the kind of weirdness you would expect, and a further joy in realising dark delights.
Deerskin is a pretty film, also. The colour grading keeps everything in uniform hues, the palette built to compliment and match the central jacket which, to be fair, is a pretty cool jacket. This approach highlights fascination and creates a compelling subjective lens in which we see the world through jacket obsessed eyes. It also, though, conveys an important sense of mediocrity. Our jacketed protagonist (Jean Dujardin) is pathetic, and the film knows it. He is a failure and masks his shortcomings with his bizarre sartorial fascination. The overwhelming beige of the film therefore conveys the character, and his world of mediocrity. His blandness is inescapable, even when he thinks he is the pinnacle of cool. It is a sharp looking film with a clear purpose, this being the film’s strongest suit.
The wider film is perfectly fine but seems rather incidental. Once again, the plodding inelegance of the whole thing is in keeping with the character. However, it could maintain this and still be more creative and compelling. Yes, the central premise is very strange, but this ends up as more of an end point than it does a foundation. It is too aware of its own conceptual strangeness and seems to think this is enough. There is escalation towards the end, down an expected route, but it comes rather late and in a somewhat perfunctory fashion. The core conceit is terrifically unexpected and brilliantly different, once you’ve internalised this plot point, the film has nothing else like this for you.
It does, at least, have strong performances. Dujardin sells a pathetic man very well, conveying awkward and stilted energy with skill. The film becomes a buddy comedy, as Adèle Haenel (who is never not superb) is brought into his quest. Of course, he never sells himself to her as a man who wants to rid the world of other jackets because he loves his jacket so much. He lies to her, claiming to be a filmmaker, in deeply unconvincing ways. Haenel’s character is an aspiring editor and leaves her humdrum life in hospitality to help him make his film. A film that definitively does not exist. The only footage he films is of people surrendering jackets, at first voluntarily and later, let’s just say by force.
With this plot line, the film gains a key strength but misses a beat. The strength is in the arc of Haenel’s editor. She is never presented as a rube, a fool caught up in an obvious lie. The film explores how she is also compelled my mediocrity to escape a normal existence, and how she is using the film’s protagonist as much as he is using her. Through this, the film becomes a portrait of fascinations (and our unrealistic desires) and how prosaic realities keep us from them. The issue, though, is that the film doesn’t capitalise on any of this. A film being made in a film is a fertile device and it stings a little when the in-fiction movie seems to be more experimental and challenging than Deerskin itself. This is a very linear and expected 77 minutes, something even more apparent when Haenel’s editor talks about how she is trying to find a movie in the edit, experimenting with form to find narrative.
With a premise that provides such surface level satisfaction, it is a shame the film does not get beyond this. The short runtime is an attraction but is ultimately a limitation, allowing the film to play with only a very small canvas. Deerskin ends up as more of a curio, an interesting little film that is worth seeking out, even if not wholly satisfying. It has the weirdness and the craft to pull in a cult crowd, but perhaps not the substance to allow it to linger.