About midway through Quentin Dupieux’s breezy yet jarring 2020 film Deerskin (Le daim), the lead character Georges has a back-and-forth “conversation” with a deer-leather jacket he’s just purchased with, quite literally, all of the money in his bank account. Jean Dujardin, who plays Georges with endless dryness, voices the part of the leather jacket with a timbre slightly lower than his own, but Dupieux’s camera work makes it abundantly clear that both voices are emanating from the same brain. The leather jacket doesn’t actually have its own voice — or does it? When, at the end of the movie, the jacket comes under the possession of Denise (Adèle Haenel), the same sort of transfixion comes under her as well.
Deerskin’s central theme is hard to pin down, and Dupieux is no stranger to the theme of possession-by-inanimate object. His 2010 film Rubber is about a telepathic and psychopathic killer tire and its romance with a strange woman named Sheila (played by Roxane Mesquida). Both films, on paper, seem like B-movie productions — in practice , however, the French Dupieux, who is perhaps better known for his techno music and related music videos, has actually begun to assemble a body of work that deals with the magnetic pull artists feel towards the work itself. Deerskin’s methodology might be new, but the central tenets of its 77 minutes are part of the same cinematic heritage that created Jim McBride’s indie darling David Holzman’s Diary (1967) and Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Camera Buff (1979). These three films, amongst several others, ponder the massive artistic question of ” Am I seeking the camera out, or am I being sucked in, like a moth to a flame?
So much of Deerskin’s plot unfolds before Georges’ first appearance. Dupieux establishes the character’s backstory in tantalizing snippets of soundbites, as Georges tells Denise (played with an honest richness by Haenel, who American audiences will know better from Celine Sciamma’s critical hit Portrait of a Lady on Fire) that he is a filmmaker, and that he’s scouting locations for his next movie. Denise, excited, tells him that she is an editor and would love to help, although most of her experience is in taking existing films with funky chronology and putting them in a proper timeline. “I did it with Pulp Fiction,” Denise tells Georges at a bar, “and it turned out shit.”
The thing is, Georges is not a filmmaker. It’s unclear what he is. Georges is apparently separated from his wife and has lost his job, but the reasons why remain unclear for the entire runtime. When Georges first appears, he’s on a road trip to a small town to buy a deerskin leather jacket, one that is clearly too small for Dujardin’s boxy shoulders, with excessive fringes that hang so low the jacket might not even have been in style during the 1970s. Nevertheless, Georges is so transfixed by it that he doesn’t see those details. He just sees “killer style” (a strange bit of foreboding language). Then, while buying the jacket, Georges notices that his vendor also has a digital camcorder from the early 90s. The old man tells him to take it.
It’s at this point that Georges starts taking on his new persona. Why does he lie about being a filmmaker? At first, it seems like he’s just looking for a way to flirt with Denise behind the bar, but as the film progresses, Georges becomes enraptured by the jacket, and therefore himself in it, and his bizarre obsession turns deadly when the jacket tells him, in a pivotal scene, that his lifelong dream is to be “the only jacket in the world.” Georges interprets this in the only way possible: he must kill everyone he sees with a jacket, bury the jacket the victim was wearing and film it all in a cinéma vérité style.
If this is a psychotic break for Georges, it’s not a particularly unhinged one. Even as Georges goes on a bloody rampage, he does it all with a nonchalant coolness. Perhaps Georges was a sociopath before he made it to this sleepy French village, but this streak of mindless murder is motivated by an entirely psycopathic (and, notably, hilarious) desire to be the only person in the world wearing a jacket. The question of Deerskin is whether this almost zombie-like and villainous quest is a possession by the leather jacket, the camcorder or Georges himself; a question that seemingly gets answered at the end of the movie when Georges is finally killed in an act of revenge by an angry father (whose child has not been killed but only bullied). Denise, strangely unfazed, takes the camera and jacket and starts filming herself. The cycle continues.
Dupieux’s movie is disturbing, but it’s also blisteringly funny. It’s not just the way Dujardin plays Georges with flatness, but also in the overarching narrative about filmmaking itself. Deerskin is not just about a heartless killer motivated by a piece of dated clothing, as it’s also a film about the feeling of impossibility of filmmaking as an enterprise, and how, sometimes literally, you can be killed before you’ve even begun to craft your story. And yet, the camera entrances: Georges goes on his bloody path because he is compelled to by the film that he accidentally starts making. He is, perhaps literally, possessed by the camera. The impossible mission the jacket has placed him on, to destroy every person wearing a jacket and every jacket that has been worn, is mirrored by the equally impossible task of finishing a movie with a devastatingly low budget. Dupieux himself knows all too well the difficulty of making a movie without proper funding, and perhaps Deerskin is his attempt at showing the frustration he feels in operating under such conditions — frustration that could make someone kill.
Of course the camera as a subject is nothing new to cinema; ever since Federico Fellini’s 8 ½ (1963), filmmakers have been making movies about movies within movies like clockwork. Bob Fosse’s All That Jazz (1979) and Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980) are two of the more prominent examples in that Fellini-esque mold of films about auteurs reckoning with their own artistic lives. But only a handful treat the camera as the centripetal force of the narrative. With David Holzman’s Diary in 1967, director Jim McBride essentially created the antecedent for modern day video blogs and YouTube confessionals. In that film, the fourth wall is completely absent, and even though the movie is fiction, it ends up reading as found footage (also unheard of at the time). David Holzman’s Diary shows a young filmmaker (L.M. Kit Carson, convincingly playing a facsimile of himself) documenting his day-to-day life in an outspoken attempt to better understand himself, all amongst the backdrop of a hot summer in New York while civil uprisings were sprouting up in neighboring New Jersey.
David starts off the movie addressing the camera. He’s not sure why he’s doing it, but the act in itself seems to be enough. He’s recently lost his job, and being drafted into the Vietnam War seems inevitable. So, the camera offers solace — at least to start. Holzman shoots everything — all his thoughts, his feelings, his relationship, his friendships (none of which seem to be of artistic value). His own friend Pepe tells him “your life is not a very good piece of art.” Holzman seems either unaware of this fact or uncaring for its truth, because he continues filming even when his girlfriend insists that he leave her out of it. At first, he agrees, but when she catches him filming her, in the nude, while she sleeps, the relationship crumbles. The filming, however, continues.
The aimless wandering of David Holzman through the movie continues irrespective of his exponentially urgent filmmaking. But to what end? While Holzman seems to be devoid of a tangible purpose for his craft, he is compelled incessantly to continue working: the craft is the craft itself, and the act is important in and of its own right. As Jim McBride told Film Comment in an interview with Justin Stewart in 2013:
“I had a lot of interest in cinema verité. It was a very exciting time because there were several things going on in movies and in New York at the time. Some of it had to do with documentary and these new technical abilities to shoot with a relatively lightweight camera that made it possible to show real situations. You could film without disrupting things too much. With that new kind of filmmaking, it became possible to get in touch with the real. There was other stuff too — the French New Wave, the American underground. If nothing else, they made the idea of making movies very exciting. We were all trying to find another way of expressing something that was different from the standard Hollywood movie fare. That’s how I got interested in movies.”
Some of those ideas are the relationships between truth and fiction, and between art and reality; David Holzman’s Diary can easily be looped in with films like This Is Spinal Tap (1984) for its mockumentary style and The Blair Witch Project (1999) for its deception of the audience into believing the work was, in fact, found footage. But David Holzman’s Diary also has its roots in Jean-Luc Godard’s early work (and the French New Wave more generally) in that its focus is not on ritualistic plot devices but rather an exploration of filmmaking itself as an art form. The layers of art making here are deliberately solipsistic; McBride is making a movie with an actor portraying a facsimile of himself about the nature of truth and art in filmmaking as an enterprise, and writing as an exploration of the meaning of truth. In fact, the money for the project was initially intended as a grant for McBride and Carson to write a book on cinema verité, and it wasn’t until the two had begun research that they realized their central thesis might be better served by crafting a movie in which cinema verité as a concept would constantly be questioned. In other words David Holzman’s Diary is not just an investigation into cinema verité but also a rebuke of it; truth does not exist in filmmaking, even in a documentary, because as soon as the camera is flipped on, precise truth is an impossibility.
David Holzman’s Diary is much more explicitly a film about filmmaking than Deerskin is, but both find central characters who are uncommonly drawn to the camera as a means to document their lives. Both Georges and David find it impossible to put the camera away, even when the camera itself spells disaster for their respective personal lives. Georges’ use of the camera leads him to his own demise, and David loses his most important personal relationship and, eventually, the equipment itself. Perhaps McBride and Dupieux are questioning whether the act of filmmaking, as an artistic endeavor, can justify itself. Perhaps it doesn’t matter; the filmmaking will continue regardless. After all, McBride ends up having David turn the camera on himself to end the film in much the same way that Georges does throughout Deerskin and the way Denise carries up the mantle. It’s not hard to imagine extended footage in which David goes down a similarly treacherous path as Georges in Deerskin.
In Krzyszstof Kieslowski’s 1979 masterpiece Camera Buff (or, Amator, in its original Polish), the act of filmmaking is both salvation and damnation.
In fact, one of the first images thrust upon viewers is that of a black crow devouring a white dove; an image of foreboding in that the film’s protagonist, Filip (Jerzy Stuhr), will eventually shoot many images of birds, and that he is eaten alive by a passion he never knew he had. What distinguishes Camera Buff from David Holzman’s Diary and Deerskin is that the life of the artist is almost forced upon Filip; he is compelled to film only later, when it becomes an emotional necessity.
At the outset of Camera Buff, Filip is just a small-town government office worker who has bought a small 8mm camera in order to film the early days of his newborn child. He has no interest in using the camera for anything other than documenting his domestic bliss, but as he is the only person in town with a camera, Filip quickly becomes the town documentarian and, unwittingly, its representative artist. The fact that he is the only person to have the camera is characteristically Kieslowskian; it’s a plot point that is both mythical and harshly true as a political statement. It’s not lost on Filip’s colleagues that he must’ve shelled out quite a bit of money to get the camera, and Kieslowski wastes no scene in showing the the working class’ financial despair: drab, enormous apartment complexes in endless earth tones that house seemingly everyone in town. This is why Filip can easily become an artist without ever meaning to, and why his work inspires and aggravates those around him in equal measure.
Kieslowski himself was a documentarian-turned-artist, so Camera Buff holds some autobiographical weight to it. But even in the absence of this extratextual knowledge does this film hold considerable interest as an exploration of the automatic pull an instrument of art can hold. The moniker of artist has hardly been thrust upon Filip, who would otherwise be rather insignificant in the cog of the machinery of this company, when he becomes intent on protecting his work. The board of the company has just seen a cut of his documentary about the work they do and have suggested a handful of cuts (lose the pigeons, get rid of the scene of the board members on the way to the bathroom). Filip is less than enthused with these notes; with each instance of Filip getting feedback, he gets progressively more protective over his work. Even though Filip himself later says that he “doesn’t want to be considered an artist,” the process has already begun. For Filip, and for Kieslowski, perhaps, the pull of the camera and the urging on of the life of an artist are processes that can’t be interrupted. The need to create, once it takes hold, does not let go; an understanding that any artist implicitly has.
Of course, as Kieslowski scholar Annette Insdorf points out in her interview that accompanied the United States DVD release, the scenes in which Filip gets notes are wonderfully sly jabs at the government sensors at the time. There is the aforementioned scene with the pigeons, but there is also a scene in which Filip’s wife, Irka (Malgorzata Zabkowska), forbids her husband from shooting their newborn while it is naked — a singularly absurd and prudish suggestion meant to refer to Kieslowski himself being silenced by governmental representatives. Later in Camera Buff, when the messaging becomes more nakedly political, there had at one point been a line of dialogue, “In our society, poor people have few opportunities,” which had been cut by the same censors. The last act of the film, which has Filip gaining more and more interest in his own artwork at the same moment that he loses more and more control over his personal and professional lives, is a testament to the way the working class in Poland (and, really, elsewhere) are persistently swallowed up by the machinery of capitalism. Even Filip’s artwork cannot divorce itself from the company that birthed it; as Filip’s work gets recognized by film competitions, the company sees opportunities to highlight their “contributions” and agendas. Art becomes a vehicle for profit.
At the end of Camera Buff, Filip turns the camera on himself, an image that is startlingly similar to the end of David Holzman’s Diary. No longer with a wife or a child, Filip finds a new subject: the self. After having lost everything, as David Holzman has, as Georges has in Deerskin, the need to film and create persists. In spite of great, monumental, irrevocable loss, the art continues. The self continues.
Greg Nussen (@GregNussen) is a Los Angeles-based writer and actor who has written for Knock-LA and Bright Lights Film Journal. He is the co-host of the podcast Moron That Later and the upcoming fantasy film analysis show Dance Magic Dance. Visit Greg’s personal website at gregnussen.com.