Deerskin (2020)

I remember being affectionately amused by Quentin Dupieux’s meta-philosophical horror comedy Rubber when I reviewed it a few years back, but I wouldn’t fault anyone who wasn’t. There’s a “How goofy is this?” Sharknado quality to the film—an ironic B-movie about a sentient, killer car tire—that I could see being a turn-off for a lot of audiences, even horror nerds. At any rate, Dupieux’s latest work is much more straight-faced in its commitment to its own gimmick, with no winking-at-the-camera fourth wall breaks to temper the Absurdism of its premise. Even speaking as a defender of Rubber, it’s all the better for it (and now I’m doubly curious about all Dupieux’s films that I’ve missed in-between).

Deerskin stars Jean Dujardin as an unremarkable middle-aged man who purchases a vintage deerskin jacket. The jacket transforms him from an unfashionable divorcee on the verge of a Mid-Life Crisis into a self-proclaimed fashionista with “killer style.” The jacket itself is tacky & doesn’t quite fit his Dad Bod correctly, but it absolutely changes his life with a much-needed confidence boost. Only, this newfound confidence quickly snowballs into an absurdist extreme. Whenever alone, he converses with the jacket. Anytime he encounters a mirror, he stops to admire himself in it. He lovingly films the jacket with a digital camcorder, convinced its greatness must be documented. Then, deluded that no one else in the world should have the privilege to wear any other jacket (as his is obviously the superior garment), he begins indiscriminately killing jacketed strangers in its honor.

The most obvious way that Deerskin succeeds as an absurdist comedy is that it’s damn funny from start to end. Not only is the idea of a jacket being so fashionably mesmerizing that it leads to a life of crime hilarious even in the abstract, but the overqualified Dujardin’s straight-faced commitment to the bit sells each gag with full inane delight. Portrait of a Lady on Fire‘s Adèle Haenel is equally overqualified as the Oscar winner’s costar, aiding in his crimes as an amateur film nerd who edits his jacket-themed home movies into coherent Cinema. The pair’s unlikely chemistry as an amateur filmmaking duo is hilarious in its deadpan seriousness, a sincerity that nicely counters the ironic distancing of Rubber. Anytime you slip into not taking the titular jacket’s “killer style” seriously, a vicious flash of violence or selfish cruelty re-anchors the story in a real place. Its seriousness sneaks up on you.

In Rubber, the killer car tire’s crime spree is explained as a philosophical exercise in an Absence of Reason – absurdity for absurdity’s sake. Deerskin is just as silly on its face as that over-the-top splatter comedy, except that it has a clear, genuine satirical target: Masculine Vanity. The entire film plays as a hilarious joke at the expense of macho narcissism, especially of the Divorcee in Midlife Crisis variety. Not to miss an opportunity for meta-commentary, Dupieux uses this platform to satirize his own vanity for making an entire feature film about a killer jacket in the first place. Even if you’re not a fan of his work in general or if—for some reason—the premise of this macho mutation of In Fabric doesn’t entice you, maybe that willingness to self-eviscerate will be enough bridge the gap.

-Brandon Ledet

The Lobster (2016)

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threehalfstar

Fail to fall in love with The Lobster within the first 45 minutes & you’ll be transformed into the miffed geezer complaining that he had just seen “the stupidest movie of [his] life” while standing next to me at the world’s most telling critical forum: the post-screening urinal. Personally, I enjoyed the film, but it took a lot of willingness to give into its off-putting deadpan style to get there. Here’s a list of things you have to be okay with seeing depicted to enjoy The Lobster: high-concept absurdism, twee preciousness, animal cruelty, romanceless intercourse, abrupt & ambiguous conclusions, heartless violence, purposefully awkward & stilted acting, a muddled mix of sci-fi & fantasy, the world’s strangest rape joke, and Colin Farrell. You still with me? A lot of the elderly folk I shared a theater with last Saturday morning weren’t, making this one of the most disharmonious screening I’ve been to since listening to the genre-minded horror hungry grumble at The Witch. Just like the film’s central premise promises/threatens, there’s a lot of pressure to fall in love with The Lobster against the near-insurmountable odds or else your personal experience could turn quite ugly, even beastly.

As is true with a lot of high-concept sci-fi & fantasy, I mostly enjoyed The Lobster as an exercise in world-building. In the film’s dystopian reality, being romantically unattached is punishable by law. Only couples are allowed to live in The City. Single people are forcibly enrolled in a program at a resort hotel that attempts to pair them off in life-long romantic bonds. Failure to fall in love within 45 days results in being turned into an animal of their choice through surgical procedure. More time can be added to their stay at the resort by hunting down defecting loners who chose to live in isolation in the wilderness. Seemingly, no one is truly happy. There’s a fierce, biting allegory to this premise that combines the most effective aspects of sci-fi short stories & absurdist stage play black humor to skewer the surreal, predatory nature of the modern romance landscape. It takes a certain sensibility to give into The Lobster‘s many outlandish conceits, but it’s easy to see how the film could top many best of the year lists for those able to lock onto its very peculiar, particular mode of operation, despite the sour word of mouth at the post-screening urinal. It’s basically 2016’s Anomalisa, with all the positives & negatives that comparison implies.

Just like Anomalisa, The Lobster is difficult to connect with on a personal, emotive level due to the distancing nature of its befuddled protagonist & its high-concept conceit. (Both films also boast the two of the awkwardest sex scenes I’ve endured in years, but that’s another matter.) I would say that the central problem with high-concept allegory is that it cuts into the audience’s ability to empathize with a film’s romance & humanity, but that’s not always true. Just look to Spike Jonze’s Her for a work that has its cake & eats it too in that regard. The Lobster is purposefully distancing & impersonal. It intentionally takes the audience out of the story at every given opportunity to gawk & scoff at the absurdity of modern romance. I know that I personally would’ve been more enthusiastic about the film’s rewards if it injected a little more heart into its satirical black comedy reflections on the predatory nature of romantic coupling, which didn’t even match the somber not of Anomalisa in terms of genuine emotion. Not everyone will feel that way, though, and a great deal of folks will perfectly enjoy The Lobster on an intellectual level without needing to engage with it on an emotional one.

Sci-fi romance horror has become a pet favorite subgenre of mine lately, best reflected in titles like Possession, Spring, and The One I Love. The Lobster does the genre one better & injects an unhealthy dose of black humor into the formula. A lot of my favorite moments in the film are when it pushes the surreality of its central premise into the familiar territory of a solid comedic gag: masturbation punished with a bread toaster, a Zero Theorem-esque headphones dance party in the woods, the idea that certain species are endangered because most people choose to become dogs, an over-the-top fairy tale narration that pokes fun at the absurdity of needless voice-over, etc. I also respect the film greatly for not shying away from the consequences of its cold, bloody violence, despite what you might expect from its tightly controlled Wes Anderson/Michel Gondry-type meticulousness & whimsy. The Lobster sets the tone early with an opening gun shot, a vindictive act of violence that chills the room before its absurdist humor has a chance to warm it up.

Still, I can see what the wheezing geezer at the urinal was getting at when he complained that the film, particularly the ending, was a letdown. The Lobster is not a romance for the ages titled The Lobsters or a yuck-em-up comedy titled My Brother the Dog, though it could’ve easily gone in either direction. It’s an uncompromising, absurd trudge through ennui & romantic dread, one that makes very little effort to bring the audience along for the deeply somber ride. It takes a leap of faith to enjoy the film. I enjoyed it a great deal myself, but I’ll admit that I was also a little miffed at the way it wore the “Not for Everyone” tag like a badge of honor every chance it got. I get where you’re coming from, angry urinal critic. I understand.

-Brandon Ledet

Rubber (2011)

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threehalfstar

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“This is the first time in my life I’ve identified with a tire.”

In the late 90s & early 00s Quentin Dupieux was making electronica records & puppet-starring music videos under the moniker Mr. Oizo. He’s since developed the visual end (the much more interesting dynamic to me) of that project into a career as a full-blown filmmaker. I’ve yet to see any of Dupieux’s other works, but it’s very easy to see Mr Oizo’s (and his puppet surrogate Flat Eric’s felt-covered) fingerprints all over his most widely known film to date, Rubber. Rubber is, in essence, a work of puppetry. A horror comedy about a sentient, killer car tire with psychokinetic abilities, Rubber is puppetry in its most basic sense: it brings an inanimate object to life & supplies it with a personality. Rubber‘s car tire protagonist/antagonist might not be easily recognizable as a traditional puppet, but it’s easy to see an A-B connection between the irreverent puppetry of the film & Dupieux’s past work as Mr. Oizo/Flat Eric. Local mainstay Miss Pussycat might be a more logical path of lineage for Mr. Oizo, but Dupieux has certainly not left those puppet-centric music video roots in his past.

A full-length feature film about a killer car tire might sound a little narratively thin to wholly succeed, but Rubber sidesteps that concern by adding a second plot line concerning meta audience participation to its formula. Rubber is not only an unnecessarily gritty/gory version of the classic short film The Red Balloon; its also a tongue-in-cheek indictment of the audience who would want to see such a gratuitous triviality in the first place. A car tire comes to life & immediately learns to kill after it figures out how to roll on its own treads. After crushing bugs & trash under its light weight, the tire moves onto telekinetically exploding human heads like that one .gif from Cronenberg’s Scanners continuously playing on loop. The only thing that could stop this depraved nonsense is if the meta audience surrogate, a mysterious group of binoculars-equipped onlookers, would just simply stop paying attention. Rubber’s central message seems to be very much in line with that of the Treehouse of Horror segment “Attack of the Fifty Foot Eyesores“. If we don’t want to see any more films this inane, cruel, and unnecessary, we need to stop paying them attention.

Of course, I do enjoy watching things this inane & gratuitous, which is largely what Dupieux is depending on. My favorite parts of the film are the moments when the tire is doing things even more unnecessary than rolling on its own volition or exploding heads with its “mind”: it sleeps, it drinks, it watches television, it peeps in on girls in the shower, it stares in abject horror at a mass grave/tire fire, etc. It takes a certain appreciation of for-its-own-sake-absurdity and/or impossibly dumb horror schlock to enjoy the film for what it is, but Rubber does come off as eager to amuse once you get on its wavelength. The smartest thing Dupieux does with Rubber is to open the film with a fourth wall-breaking mission statement that ponders “In Steven Spielberg’s E.T. why is the alien brown? No reason […] In Oliver Stone’s JFK, why is the president suddenly assassinated by some stranger? No reason,” and goes on to declare “All great films, without exception, contain an important element of ‘no reason’. And you know what? It’s because life is filled with ‘no reason’. The film you are about to see today is an homage to ‘no reason’, the most powerful element of style.” If you’re amused & not violently rolling your eyes at the sentiment of that quote, chances are you’ll have a similar to reaction to Rubber as a whole. All else abandon ship.

Even with all of Rubber‘s stray meta-philosophical tendencies (which are never taken too seriously), Dupieux sticks to a strict doctrine of ‘no reason’. There’s no entertainment value or general purpose to this film about a killer car tire other than the perverse pleasure of watching a film about a killer car tire. It’s the kind of the same joy you could pull from watching a yellow felt puppet file paper work, drive a car, or shill for Levi’s jeans to a groovy beat. It doesn’t need a reason beyond its own very existence.

-Brandon Ledet

The Forbidden Room (2015)

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threehalfstar

Ever since I saw director Guy Maddin’s dark absurdist comedy The Saddest Music in the World in the mid-2000s I’ve been trying to make sense of his visual aesthetic, which is a strange form of collage that uses intentionally-degraded film & analog effects to create an ancient world of “lost”, “forgotten” cinema that probably never existed. Last week, the simple act of Netflix browsing helped me break the code. After watching animator Don Hertzfeldt’s Oscar-nominated short World of Tomorrow in close proximity with Maddin’s latest work, The Forbidden Room, I feel like I’ve finally found a point of reference for where Maddin’s coming from as an auteur. Both Maddin & Hertzfeldt seem to be operating in similar realms of visual collage, just ones separated by the live-action/animation divide. Both directors also have a propensity for mixing highbrow technical achievements with surprisingly childish (or at the very least absurdist) humor that undercuts any potential pretension. Thinking of Maddin as the live-action Hertzfeldt opened a lot of doors for me in understanding his work, as Hertzfeldt’s early works Rejected & Billy’s Balloon made a huge impact on me in my high school years & have stuck with me ever since.

Understanding a basic context or comparison point for Maddin is one thing, but trying to get a full grasp on his work in any particular sense is a much more futile exercise. The Forbidden Room is, in a lot of ways, pure Maddin aesthetic with little to no consideration given to purpose or accessibility. The film is funny, strange, visually astonishing, but purely there to amuse itself with its very existence. The Forbidden Room is High Art with a prankster’s spirit, a feast for the eyes much more interested in juvenile humor than any specific narrative. Its a story within a story within a story within a story story structure is a pure down-the-rabbit-hole adventure, a dizzying mess of dueling timelines that individually hold less & less significance as they multiply. The film opens with the instructional short “How to Take a Bath”, a how-to guide hosted by “Marv”, who might be the least mysterious man in the world. From there the camera is flushed down the bathtub drain where it finds a submarine full of men who’re sustaining their oxygen supply by consuming the air pockets in flapjacks. It gets more convoluted & silly from there. By the time you’re in a cave inside a forest inside a submarine inside a bathtub, making sense of the film’s setting or Inception-esque narrative becomes entirely superfluous, especially since the walls dividing their individual parts become increasingly thin in the film’s second hour.

The best way to enjoy The Forbidden Room is to look for solace in its visual treats & remarkably silly humor. It’s probably wise not to worry, for instance, about why the bathtub submarine men are “protecting the blasting jelly”, but rather to have a good laugh at the purple prose of the title card that introduces them as “Four frightened men forty fathoms deep, embedded in silence, hidden from God behind the face of the sea, behind the waves that sing and flirt of the face of the sea.” And that’s one of the more highbrow gags. Another title card exclaims, after the suggestion of cunnilingus, “Within the deep pink of a cave – boggling puzzlements!” Because of its frantic visuals & silent era horror weirdness, The Forbidden Room is the kind of film destined to be projected behind some anonymous stoner metal band at a dive bar or a house party, but treating the film that way would severely undercut its weirder strains of humor. It’d be a shame, for instance, to miss the treat of hearing new wave pranksters Sparks perform an ode to the wonder of derrieres (or at least a fetishist’s love of them). The film demands to be seen with full attention at least once through. There’s nothing else quite like it.

As fascinating & as funny as The Forbidden Room can be, it’s also a grand test of patience at a whopping 130 min. I feel like Hertzfeldt’s main advantage over Maddin’s in terms of accessibility is that he works almost exclusively in short films. Even Hertzfeldt’s wonderfully twisted mental illness comedy feature film It’s Such a Beautiful Day was pieced together from a series of shorter works. Maddin’s feature-length work films might be less daunting, or at least a little easier to digest, if they came in ten minute tangents, and the director indeed mostly works within a short film format, much like Hertzfeldt. Any of The Forbidden Room‘s story within a story vignettes could’ve thrived as a standalone short film & might’ve stood as tighter, more vivid pieces with that kind of runtime limitation. Still, it’s wonderful that we have a craftsman experimenting in this kind of entirely unique (to live-action cinema, anyway) dream logic & absurdist humor visual collage. Maddin is a treasure even if his feature-length films require a great deal of work on the audience’s end. He’s worth it.

-Brandon Ledet