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The Second Act (Le Deuxième Acte)

Quentin Dupieux’s new creation succeeds as a high-octane exercise on metalanguage, yet it fails as a comedy - from the 77th Festival de Cannes

After hilariously breaking down the conventions of theatre in Yannick and deconstructing an iconic painter in Daaaaaali!, both just last year, 50-year-old French musician and director Quentin Dupieux releases yet another deeply subversive piece of filmmaking with much aplomb: his creation just opened the 77th edition of the most prestigious film festival in the world. At a taut 80 minutes (the helmer tends to keep his feature films reasonably concise, mostly at or below that line), The Second Act seems like an entirely natural step in Dupieux’s career (even the film title suggests that the director has done it before). This is a comedy about film actors consistently haggling about their relationship to one another and the very nature of cinema, just as they deliver their performance. An epistemological study of the seventh art. What could possibly go wrong? Well…

Willy (Raphaël Quenard) is unabashedly bigmouthed, and with a genuine disregard for present-day political correctness. He’s vaguely transphobic and homophobic, entirely undaunted by the merciless camera which could land him in hot water (should he become a victim of the “cancel culture”). His friend David (Louis Garrel) wants him to sleep with Florence (Léa Seydoux) because he wishes to get rid of the clingy female. But the cunning Florence has other plans, and a trap that she set up herself for the man whom she intends to scoop. She invites her father Guillaume (Vincent Lindon) to meet the Willy and his friend in a local roadside restaurant called The Second Act. The local landlord Stephane (Manuel Guillot) is so excited by their presence that he can barely serve them wine without nervously spilling the liquid all over the table.

Guillaume constantly boasts that he has landed an acting job with one of the biggest directors in the world, but Willy looks unimpressed. He fails to guess who the high-calibre filmmaker might be, but Guillaume remains convinced that the younger man is just jealous. Bizarre and hardly related conversations about film, love and homosexuality ensue. And a physical fight. Guillaume is disgusted by David’s bisexuality, comparing it to a hybrid car (a part-time polluting, part-time electric vehicle). The actors occasionally break the fourth wall and allude to the intrincacies of filmmaking, and even mention the name a member of the crew. They continuously oscillate between playing the characters in the film-within-the-film and the actors portraying them – sometimes several times within a short dialogue. The outcome is a highly inventive piece of super-metalinguistic filmmaking, highlighting the joys and the pains of the artistic trade.

It is unclear whether The Second Act contains elements of autofiction. In other words, it is impossible to say whether the filmmaker and the actors (Dupieux, Quenard, Garrel, Seydoux, Lindon and Guillot) are referencing their real-life personas. This is intentional, as the helmer (who also penned the film script) sets out to confound his viewers by toying with mistaken identity and perception, and alternating between the internal layers of fiction and reality. Nothing is what it seems. The allegiances and the beliefs of the characters may suddenly shift. Maybe they were just pretending. Contrary to his late countryman Jean-Luc Godard, Quentin Dupieux is hellbent on proving that cinema is lies 24 frames per second. Truth remains plastic and elusive. The wheel of metalanguage keeps spinning vertiginously until it comes off the axle and sends viewers off on a surprising (a Kiarostamian type of deception) yet vaguely clumsy ending.

The Second Act is a constant assault on the orthodoxies of cinema. A mockery of formulaic conventions. The director and the actor (of the unnamed film-within-the-film) are congratulated for “meeting 92% of artistic charter established by the producer”. On the other hand, Willy has €460 deduced from his paycheque as a penalty for coming up with too many spontaneous lines. This is not the place for awarding improvisation, it seems. The film director is a highly secretive figure with some very bizarre coaching techniques (anyone heard of remote filmmaking?). The characters discuss AI with two punters at the bar, who remains blithely unaware of the dangers that this extreme technology could pose for creatives. They are advised to “carry on dreaming”, in a call-to-action for all film professionals and film-lovers alike: cinema must never become strictly regimented; instead, it should retain its oneiric essence.

The sad irony is that a film that sets out to poke fun at industry formulas feels very contrived. While inventive, The Second Act lacks organicity and spontaneity. It feels heavily scripted, and I doubt the actors had the opportunity to devise their own interactions. The jokes fall flat on their face, and the film partly collapses under the weight of its own ambition. Quentin Dupieux’s 14th feature film is very quirky and endearing (particularly if your work in the film industry), however barely funny. I only laughed once in the entire movie (this dirty queer loved the polluting car and homosexuality analogy). This is not the Dupieux’s finest work.

The Second Act is the opening film of the 77th edition of the Festival de Cannes. It’s showing in the main selection, however it is out of competition.

By Victor Fraga - 15-05-2024

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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