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Cannes 2024: ‘Le Deuxième Acte’ (‘The Second Act’) – Quentin Dupieux’s loopy take on Pirandello

The Second Act
The Second Act Copyright Chi-Fou-Mi / Arte France Cinéma / Cannes Film Festival
Copyright Chi-Fou-Mi / Arte France Cinéma / Cannes Film Festival
By David Mouriquand
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The world’s burning and scandals may be brewing. Time for a comedy, as this year's Cannes Film Festival opens with a meta millefeuille from beloved French absurdist Quentin Dupieux.

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Opening films at the Cannes Film Festival are rarely all that good.

In recent years, Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die, Michel Hazanavicius’ Final Cut and Maïwenn’s Jeanne Du Barry singularly failed to raise pulses, and the opening gala slot has increasingly felt like a way for critics to get warmed up by getting some early venom-spitting out of the way before the Competition starts off in earnest.

Now, with the backdrop of war, possible #MeToo scandals, strikes, one of the Competition directors fleeing his home country to avoid prison time, and the festival’s artistic director Thierry Frémaux wanting “to put cinema back in the spotlight” instead of focusing on scandal comes prolific French absurdist Quentin Dupieux’s latest film Le Deuxième Acte (The Second Act). 

And why not? Considering things are getting heavy in Cannes already, what better way to kick things off than with a comedy? It not only feels like a felicitous choice, but also ends up as one of the best opening films in recent memory.

It begins with two friends walking towards the titular roadside restaurant.

Turtlenecked David (Louis Garrel) is not so keen on pursuing Florence (Léa Seydoux). She, however, is persistent and even brings her father Guillaume (Vincent Lindon) to their meet up, as she’s convinced David is the one.

David’s plan to get out of this lopsided romance? He brings along the exuberant Willy (Raphaël Quenard), in hopes that he can set him up with Florence instead.

Seems straightforward enough in a sort of indie romcom sort of way, but as is usually the case in Dupieux’s world, nonsense quickly comes a-knockin’. We quickly find out that the film takes place on a film set. Not that you’ll see any crew or physical indications of that, mind you. Just a lot of fourth wall breaks and eyeballing the camera.

And it escalates. There’s meta, and there’s meta.

This is the latter.

From inappropriate conversations that seem cribbed from J.K. Rowling’s X feed to on-set harassment, unimpressed mothers, urban myths about James Cameron’s Titanic and ego-fuelled rants about how making art in a world that’s burning is a vain and morally indefensible endeavour – unless Paul Thomas Anderson wants to cast you, and in that case, lofty discourses on the futility of filmmaking quickly get jettisoned into the sun – room dividers are truly a thing of the past here. The actors know they’re making a bad movie. A movie featuring a swelling score which is revealed to be the first to be entirely written and directed by AI, no less.

Taken analytically, The Second Act comes off as a messy jumble of ideas that doesn’t amount to all that much in terms of meaningful commentary. It touches upon cancel culture, art versus algorithm, the future of the cinematic industry and the role of cinema in times of tumult. By trippingly glossing over these thought-provoking strands, Dupieux may test the patience of viewers who’ll feel the film isn’t saying much about anything in its singularly contrived way. However, put aside all overbearingly high-minded desires to embrace incisive and topical commentary at every turn, and there’s so much to admire here.

What could have been a ditzy little sketch drunk on its own sense of self-awareness is elevated by five excellent performances, which includes the scene-stealing turn from Manuel Guillot, the restaurant’s jittery proprietor. His character (or is it?) emerges as an anxiety-crippled extra who has been aching to be in a film his whole life and whose inability to pour out a glass of wine becomes one of the film’s best on-running gags. It’s through his characters that Dupieux sows gentle confusion about the blurring boundaries of fiction and reality, in a sort of silly riff on Luigi Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of Author”. And as the meta twists accumulate, his film does reveal profundity, as it's about pretending, performance, and in the film’s dour final moments, truth.

The Second Act may not be as deliriously far-fetched as the director’s murderous psychokinetic tire (Rubber), his homicidal jacket (Deerskin) or his giant dog-munching fly (Mandibles), but it more than satisfies. And when the joke seems to have run its course with the addition of a moustache and a conversation about the pitfalls of getting a dog, Dupieux winds things up with a dour note and another epically long tracking shot which makes you want to shout: “Vive le Théâtre de l'Absurde!"

The players may know they’re in a bad movie, but the final meta twirl is its greatest: this meta millefeuille they’re really starring in is not.

Le Deuxième Acte (The Second Act) opens the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival and is out in French cinemas now.

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