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Deerskin: a French weirdo horror about a murderer with killer style

Quentin Dupieux – AKA Mr Oizo – discusses his eighth feature starring Adèle Haenel and Jean Dujardin, who plays a bumbling serial killer slicing and dicing up literal fashion victims

In 1999, a yellow, techno-loving furball named Flat Eric captivated a nation – and sold some jeans. The puppet, created by Quentin Dupieux, had its own anthem in the UK chart-topping single “Flat Beat”, and starred in numerous Dupieux-directed commercials for Levi’s. In the most prominent TV spot, Eric is introduced side-on as he lounges in a car, bopping his head to the radio, keeping his thoughts to himself. By chance, in Dupieux’s eighth feature, Deerskin, Georges (Jean Dujardin, with a fluffy, furry beard) is introduced side-on as he lounges in a car, bopping his head to the radio, keeping his thoughts to himself. At least, Dupieux insists that it’s by chance, even when I produce two nearly identical images over Zoom. “Come on!” he laughs. “I don’t know. I’m always shooting cars.”

When I speak to Dupieux, it’s in June 2021, around two years after Deerskin premiered at Cannes in 2019. Since then, the 47-year-old French artist, a prolific figure whose DJ moniker is Mr Oizo, has directed two more films: Mandibles premiered last year at Venice; and during the pandemic, he wrote, shot, and edited Incredible But True. “Mandibles just came out in France. We can’t just put out another movie. Incredible But True will have to wait at least eight months.” He adds, “It’s fully finished. Mixed. Colour graded. Everything’s done. So I’m about to prepare another movie.”

As Deerskin was three films ago for Dupieux, he describes himself as no longer “emotionally attached” to the project. “It’s just a cool piece of film,” he says. “I don’t even know if it’s dark or fun or just stupid.” Still, the world premiere seems lodged into his memory. “The French distributor told me, ‘It’s really good but it’s fucking dark.’” Then at Cannes, the audience responded with boisterous laughter. “So I told my distributor, ‘You see? OK, it’s dark, but it’s funny. They like it!’”

While Georges possesses a killer fashion style, he won’t be fronting a Levi’s advertising campaign any time soon. Early on, the disturbed man – coincidentally, an amateur filmmaker – purchases, obsessively wears, and eventually converses with a second-hand deerskin jacket. After deciding no one else should own a similar garment, Georges then proceeds on a murder spree to eliminate all jacket-wearers in his vicinity – in his defence, it was the jacket’s idea, not his. Watching curiously is Denise (Adèle Haenel), a wannabe film editor whom he tricks into funding his non-existent movie. In a typical Dupieux gag, Denise reveals that she’s been honing her skills at home – she recut Pulp Fiction so that it’s in chronological order.

Deadpan and dead-funny, Deerskin seemingly comments on toxic masculinity (Georges is newly divorced), hiding behind fashion (Denise refers to clothes as a shell), and movies inspiring copycat violence (the Tarantino reference is apt). Or perhaps it’s just about the comedic value of a cowboy jacket. Gorgeous, stylish, and practical – these three adjectives do not apply to the jacket. Even on Dujardin, the tall, handsome, Oscar-winning actor from The Artist, the vomit-coloured item of clothing looks ridiculous. “We tried 10, 12 jackets on Jean,” Dupieux recalls. “We loved that the jacket was good-looking but too short. Something’s wrong.”

I suggest that Georges’ jacket is why he’s such a loveable character. In the same way that Flat Eric’s furry exterior made us fall in love with a puppet’s denim-selling hijinks, Georges’ deerskin attire allows us to forgive a bumbling serial killer as he slices and dices literal fashion victims. “I don’t know if people actually like him,” Dupieux interjects. He theorises that, actually, we’re in the tiny minority. “But even if he’s a dick and very stupid and self-centred and always talking about him and his jacket – I like him. At the end (of the film), I’m happy for him. It’s like, ‘It’s over, buddy. Now you can rest.’”

“To me, it’s a dead-serious movie. It’s funny but not what we call a comedy” – Quentin Dupieux

In his teens, Dupieux made short films with a camcorder, but his first professional directing gigs were related to music videos – initially for other artists, then his own discography. As Mr Oizo, he’s released six albums (we spoke to him purely about music in 2016); between the first and second LP, he started directing features. His 2002 debut, Nonfilm, largely went unnoticed (Dupieux uploaded it to Vimeo; the description calls it “unwatchable” and “shot with Flat Eric’s money”) and the follow-up, Steak, failed at the box-office. However, his fortunes changed with 2010’s Rubber, an English-language slasher with a roaming tyre as a silent, well-rounded Jason Voorhees. Other filmography highlights include Reality (a filmmaker searches for an Oscar-worthy groan) and Wrong Cops (a sci-fi where crime no longer exists), both of which have roles for Eric Wareheim – the taller half of comedy duo Tim and Eric.

In fact, Dupieux wrote the first draft of Deerskin in English specifically for Wareheim. “The (early script) wasn’t in a Tim and Eric style, but it was very silly and dumb,” Dupieux says. “I love Eric. The way he is, it makes me laugh. I was seeing Eric in a tiny jacket that’s way too small for him.” Then Dupieux relocated the story from America to France. “I rewrote it. I changed the vibe to make it fresh – and not just dumb.”

While Dujardin is famed for his over-the-top slapstick in the OSS 117 spy parodies and The Artist, he depicts Georges with a deep, grounded focus. The dialogue may be absurd (“I want us to be able to walk the street without seeing other jackets”) but Dujardin behaves as if he’s in a social-realist Dardennes brothers drama. Relatedly, at Cannes in 2019, Dujardin told France Today, “I had a real problem with this film when it came to preparing the role. The truth was, I couldn’t do it – and that in itself seemed significant.” All of this is new information to Dupieux. “I just know Jean said yes very quickly without reading it,” the director says. “The idea of being this obsessed guy, he loved it straight away…. He likes to be scared by a part. He’s alone in the movie, talking to a jacket. It’s a lot of him alone, alone, alone.”

Also at that Cannes, Haenel told Film Comment that she “complained about the poor feminine characters in his movies” and that their collaboration, while positive, was “a bit more like fighting, like we were not agreeing”. Again, Dupieux is unfamiliar with these quotes.

“It was amazing to work with Adèle,” Dupieux says. “She’s an amazing actress. Always, always good. Always inspired. Always better than anyone. But she has a thing where she thinks that a guy is an enemy for some reason. If she sees me laughing with Jean between two scenes, she thinks that we’re too masculine or whatever. She will tell us, ‘Look at you machos.’ Which makes her fun, in a way. But sometimes you make a joke, and she doesn’t like it, and suddenly you’re like, ‘Sorry.’

“We had more trouble at Cannes because she was representing another movie that was bigger for her (and competing for the Palme d’Or), Portrait of a Lady on Fire. She was stressed by this. Suddenly this little movie she did with two dudes was less important for her. But I understand. I will work with her again because she’s amazing.”

Originally, Dupieux planned for Denise to be a down-to-earth everywoman to counteract Georges’ quirkiness. However, Haenel insisted that Denise should adore blood and slaughter. “Without changing a line in the script, we decided that she’s crazy,” the director says. “And because she’s an amazing actress, you see it in her eyes… suddenly every scene looks different, and Jean looks stupid in front of her. She’s evil, and he’s just a kid.”

As usual, Dupieux is the sole writer, director, cinematographer, and editor on Deerskin. Curiously, he hasn’t scored a film since Reality and cites the lack of music in No Country for Old Men as an inspiration. During Deerskin’s postproduction, he scrapped plans to record an electronic soundtrack. “To me, it’s a dead-serious movie. It’s funny but not what we call a comedy. And actually, I never use ‘funny comedy music’ or whatever… I decided to only use music from the 70s to match the jacket.”

“I’m slowly, slowly writing better roles for women, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy... writing good female characters, for a guy, it’s not that easy” – Quentin Dupieux

On Dupieux’s next film, Mandibles, which is partially scored by Metronomy, two men (David Marsais, Grégoire Ludig) discover a gigantic fly in their car and ask a stranger (Adèle Exarchopoulos) for assistance. On the director’s next, next film, Incredible But True, a couple discover a tunnel in their basement. In Haenel’s Film Comment interview, she remarked, “I hope he is going to change after (Deerskin).” Will we see a new Dupieux in Mandibles and Incredible But True?

“Adèle’s obsessed with this, and I understand why,” Dupieux says. “I told her, ‘Yes, I’m slowly, slowly writing better roles for women, but I don’t want to pretend that it’s easy.’ I explained to her: I’m writing my movies alone. Writing good female characters, for a guy, it’s not that easy. Mandibles has one amazing female character – but she’s crazy again. In Incredible But True, the main character is a woman, and everything is happening to a woman.

“This doesn’t mean I’m now writing for women only. But I told her, ‘Look, I’m a man. I’m doing my best. I understand you think I’m a stupid macho. But I promise, I will do my best, and I will write better female roles.’ Which I’m doing! And she’ll come back. You’ll see in, let’s say, about five years – she’ll come back, and we’ll do more fun together.”

For his next, next, next movie after Deerskin, Dupieux is following his usual solitary process of finishing a screenplay first, then seeing if any production companies are interested. When he edits a movie, he’ll only show the footage to his wife. “Then I do a new cut, and it’s done. It’s take it or leave it.” It strikes me that Georges and Denise are two outsiders who are united by the magic of a camcorder. Is filmmaking an activity that appeals to lonely people?

Dupieux pauses. “I’ve never thought about this,” he says. “You have to be lonely to be a filmmaker sometimes. That’s the way I feel. Even when I shoot with a 50-person crew, I’m alone with my project. If it’s bad, it’s going to be my fault. If it’s good, it’s everybody’s movie. But if it’s bad, it’s only my movie.”

Deerskin opens in UK cinemas on July 16