THE HORROR OF IDENTITY: DOUBLE BILL FILM REVIEWS – DEERSKIN (2019) & POSSESSOR (2020)
“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.”-Oscar Wilde
We’ve all wanted to exist outside our own skin. Or perhaps inhabit someone else’s? Or, maybe even change our own identity, both literally and psychologically. Or is that just me? At the least we have all thought about it. Even losing weight and going down the gym or giving up alcohol or changing our hairstyle is a means of basic transformation. We may make a more defiant change and leave that job we hate or break out from a negative relationship. Arguably though, personality, attitude and mental changes in one’s life are the most difficult. After all, it is incredibly difficult to change the very fabric of one’s personality or character.
We can find an alternative source of transformation in a vicarious sense through storytelling mediums such as literature, television and cinema. The horror genre especially is replete with monstrous visions of identity switches, psychotic breakdowns and physical transmogrification. I personally take great pleasure in seeing altered identities occur on the screen and am especially drawn to characters who experience mental and corporeal metamorphosis. That simply isn’t because I cannot change who I am or what I do on a daily basis, but it’s quite scary to attempt to reshape one’s existence and identity. It’s bloody hard work without much guarantee of success. Horror films, while also frightening when done well, are far more satisfying and give a more immediate hit than the grind of reality.
Two films I have seen recently both relate to mid-life crises and exhibit themes that illustrate two characters changing their appearance to bring about a shift in identity, behaviour and personality. They also show characters spiralling out of control in incredibly violent, bizarre and entertaining ways. Those films are Deerskin (2019) and Possessor (2020) and here are my reviews.
*** MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS ***
Directed and written by Quentin Dupieux
Main Cast: Jean Dujardin, Adele Haenel
Have you ever seen the film Rubber (2010)? It is a gonzo horror-comedy about a murderous-tyre called Robert killing birds and people with telekinetic powers. Beneath the insanity of the pitch there is in fact a subtextual satire on the nature of Hollywood filmmaking and an audience starved of originality; I think! It came from the mind of Quentin Dupieux, so I was intrigued that he had nabbed for a subsequent production the grand talents of Jean Dujardin and Adele Haenel for the obsidian killer comedy, Deerskin (2019).
Dujardin is Georges, a middle-aged loner, recently dumped by his wife whose only aim now it appears is to purchase a deerskin jacket. Buoyed by the confidence the jacket has given him, and armed with a video camera thrown in with the deal, George plots up at a rural hotel and befriends Adele Haenel’s bar server and enthusiastic film editor. Their budding friendship threatens to turn this into a relatively conventional love story, however, a series of twisted turns tip the story into a hilarious series of murderous set-pieces, with Georges determined to get money to make a movie, but most importantly buy deerskin trousers, hat and gloves.
The story of a middle-aged man altering his outer look in order to transform his life and fortune is a staple of Hollywood comedies and romance films. Deerskin (2019) is that kind of film on the surface. Yet when filtered through Dupieux’s iconoclastic imagination the premise is an altogether different kind of demented animal. Ultimately, it is a low-budget gem of a black comedy with some fantastic ideas and fascinating character study of a man attempting to shift skin, but falling deeper and deeper into psychopathy. It’s a wacky journey with committed performances, yet, it felt like the ending was just too sudden, as if the filmmaker either ran our of money or just wanted to screw with audience expectations right up until the final sudden frame.
MARK: 7.5 out of 11
Directed and written by Brandon Cronenberg
Main Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton etc.
Whereas Deerskin (2019) finds a literal and figurative metamorphosis when a character buys a jacket, Brandon Cronenberg’s vicious horror film, Possessor (2020), is an altogether more cerebral, violent and psychologically stunning journey. Andrea Riseborough is as intense as ever portraying an assassin named, Tasya Vox, who through some incredible technology is able to inhabit the mind and body of another individual and use them as a human puppet to commit murder. It’s a perfect set-up for the assassination agency led by Jennifer Jason Leigh’s handler, Girder. Yet such murder by scientific proxy comes at a cost to Vox’s family life and mental stability.
After a glorious opening scene featuring an astoundingly brutal stabbing, Vox attempts to reconnect with her partner and son, but finds herself becoming ever more disconnected. The pressure of taking over another individual’s identity is causing Vox to discombobulate as her mind begins to fracture. Despite this she takes the next job, a contract to kill John Parse (Sean Bean), using Christopher Abbott’s Colin Tate as a conduit. As Vox struggles with her splitting psyche, Tate himself is having personal issues also and this leads to some mind-bending and psychedelic montage scenes as the two battle within Tate’s brain. If this all sounds a bit weird, it is and it isn’t because the filmmaking is of such a high quality one believes the process. Further, the director never loses his grip on the narrative and Cronenberg gets a compelling performance from Abbott as his character confronts the invasion into his soul.
Overall, Possessor (2020) has a stunning concept at its heart but I just kept wondering how a genre filmmaker like Leigh Whannell may have handled the idea. He certainly would have made the characters more empathetic because it is so tough to warm to either Vox or Tate. Indeed, Tate’s character should have been developed more at the beginning in my view as he would have made an ideal “innocent/wrong man” type character so often used by Hitchcock. Nonetheless, Brandon Cronenberg has crafted one of the most visually impressive and shocking psychological horror films I have seen in a long time. Like Whannell’s Upgrade (2018), it contains some memorable gore and violence. It is also very intelligent as the fantastic ideas explore what it means to not only inhabit another person’s skin, but rip through their very soul.