‘The Second Act’ Review: Quentin Dupieux’s Cannes Film Festival Opener Is A Layered, Bubbly Film World Meta-Fest

Et voilà, The Second Act, a bubbly apéritif to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and the latest bit of mischief from Quentin Dupieux, the Loki of the French cinematic universe. Dupieux turns out a film roughly once a year, featuring protagonists ranging from a rogue rubber tire cruising the highway for victims to a giant fly captured by a couple of petty crooks who try to turn it into a sideshow attraction. Each wacky new romp brings new fans into the tent and, on the evidence of his recent cast lists, entices more big-name actors to run away and join his circus.

So roll up here to see Bond girl Léa Seydoux, the baggy-eyed veteran Vincent Lindon and the usually smoldering Louis Garrel along with a troupe of faces familiar to Dupieux’s audience. The three of them play actors shooting what appears to be an especially banal rom-com.

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Lindon’s Guillaume is so righteously disgusted by it, in fact, that he declares early on that he is walking away, deserting this film, leaving movies altogether. How can one morally defend such trivia in a world exploding with war and pestilence? Quite easily, it seems, if the price is right — he soon changes his mind.

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The eponymous Second Act is actually a roadside restaurant that looks as if its first act was to be a gas station; it is as far from the popular image of where one might eat lunch in the French countryside as anyone could get. The proprietor Stephane (Manuel Guillot) is a miserable man who eventually emerges as an incompetent extra in the film our stars are making. It is a film you hope you will never have to see.

With a few brief scenes, Dupieux gives us a firm handle on its plot. Florence (Seydoux) wants to introduce her father (Lindon) to David (Garrel), the man she adores. He has brought along his friend Willy (Raphael Quenard, making his fourth film under Dupieux’s baton). Little does Florence know that David is running scared of her constant attentions and hopes she will fall for Willy instead. They try to play the scene. The music briefly swells; the promise of love swirls between them. All illusion, of course. Slumping from the story into their real selves, drinking the prop bottles of wine Stéphane keeps spilling, they fight like cats.

As a film partly about performance and pretending, The Second Act is constantly folding in on itself, producing one illusion out of the shell of another. “Real” conversations blur with lines from the romcom script or are artfully revealed to be part of a bigger script about the business of making film, enveloping the romcom and its making like a further Russian doll.

In fact, the selves revealed over the table are no more real than lovelorn Florence and her nervous beau; these are actors playing actors playing actors, a meta-fest so layered and shot through with jokes and asides about the film world that you have no choice but to crunch through the layers, as if they were a big millefeuille, and swallow the whole thing.

The truly-real world – our world – also intrudes during a long scene in which Garrel – shifting between playing Florence’s crush and playing the actor in that role – tells his proletarian friend Willy that he wants him to take her off his hands. Willy can’t resist discussing the script as if it were “real” life. “You can’t say that, we’re being filmed!” says Garrel/David. “Do you want to get us cancelled?” Cancellation does, indeed, seem dangerously close. Willy doesn’t care; he digs himself a few more holes while David tries to correct both his unacceptable gender politics and, while he’s at it, his grammar.

It is so like Dupieux to slip a lesson on the subjunctive into a cheeky satirical commentary on our current culture wars. It is also so very Dupieux to carry on shooting his films to look cheap, even if they almost certainly aren’t any more. That’s his aesthetic; it is also a kind of artistic morality.

The Second Act takes place largely on a single set, leavened with a few outdoor scenes. There are no fancy drone shots: mostly, it consists of four people’s eye lines crossing over a table. It is also admirably brief although, at 1 hour and 25 minutes, longer than Dupieux’s usual.

In fact, The Second Act starts to sag as it heads for its final twist. Some of his earlier films seem, by contrast, to stop before their natural ends. Both of these trajectories suggest that Dupieux has grown tired of his subject before he was done with it. Maybe he should have paid more attention when he was writing; maybe he should have spent longer in the editing suite. But if the results are always a bit ragged, does it matter? Dupieux may never make a masterpiece, but his slapdash, wild entertainments are irresistible.

Title: The Second Act
Festival: Cannes (Out of Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux
Cast: Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Vincent Lindon, Raphaël Quenard
Sales agent: Kinology
Running time: 1 hr 25 min

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