Quentin Dupieux’s Meta Satire The Second Act Is a Misfire

Movies Reviews Quentin Dupieux
Quentin Dupieux’s Meta Satire The Second Act Is a Misfire

Just as much as they play like extended absurdist comedy bits, the fun-size films of Quentin Dupieux have always been about cinema. From the on-screen audiences of Rubber and Yannick to the Marvel-spoofing antics of Smoking Causes Coughing and Deerskin’s wink-wink reflection on all the weird things you can get away with just by calling yourself a filmmaker, the French auteur’s movies have always flexed their self-awareness. It was probably just a matter of time, then, before the writer-director-editor-cinematographer tackled the subject of filmmaking head-on, as he does in his Cannes-opening The Second Act. With characteristic Dupieux surreality, though, The Second Act isn’t a simple meta affair, but mind-bendingly so: It’s a movie about the making of a movie about movie-making, in which the boundaries between each nested film are deliberately left nebulous.

This labyrinthine conceit is abruptly revealed in the middle of The Second Act‘s first major scene—one of two ballsy tracking shots that are at least 10 minutes long—during which David (Louis Garrel) tries to convince his oafish friend Willy (Yannick breakout Raphaël Quenard) to woo a besotted woman he hasn’t been able to shake off. As a distrustful Willy tries to find “the catch” in David’s offer—crassly quizzing him on the woman’s weight and whether she uses a wheelchair—David exasperatedly shatters the fourth wall when he gestures in the audience’s direction and scolds Willy for a transphobic comment: “Don’t say that, we’re being filmed! Do you want us to get canceled?”

The inauthenticity, ignorance and navel-gazing vanity of the stars are the butt of many of The Second Act‘s jibes, in this scene and across its 80 minutes (a typically tight runtime for Dupieux). After working with Adèle Exarchopoulos, Jean Dujardin and Adèle Haenel, Dupieux continues his speedrun of the French acting community by casting Vincent Lindon and Léa Seydoux as David and Willy’s pompous co-stars on the set of a bad rom-com, which is The Second Act‘s smallest movie matryoshka doll. 

In line with the film’s general comic target, Lindon and Seydoux’s characters are ironic subversions of their own real-life personas, with the artistically daring Seydoux playing a middling actress with delusions of grandeur whose exasperated child thinks her too emotionally weak for a “normal” job. In the part of Guillaume, Lindon (France’s finest purveyor of gruff-yet-sensitive masculinity) is a thin-skinned, macho actor who petulantly announces he’s quitting the biz (movies feel meaningless when it looks like the credits are about to roll on planet Earth as we know it), only for his flattered ego to quickly recant those retirement plans when he gets an offer for a part in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.

Guillaume’s despair at global resource shortages and an ongoing war aren’t enough to explicitly place The Second Act in any one historical moment, but its #MeToo references and ribbing of the movie industry’s use of AI firmly puts it more or less in the here and now. That almost-live quality is probably due to the film being made just five months before its premiere—a characteristically quick turnaround for the prolific Dupieux, who has averaged at least one film a year since 2018.

But the hurtling pace of production is felt in the film’s slapdash treatment of its weightier subjects. The movie’s stabs at contemporary commentary either feel half-assed—the AI jokes in particular lack sharpness, which is disappointing considering the topic is such an open goal—or too calculated, as with The Second Act‘s allusions to #MeToo and so-called cancel culture, which are so non-committal as to play both “sides” of the issue (and in doing so, inevitably wind up playing only one). When combined with the movie’s audaciously long takes, The Second Act shoots itself in the foot by leaving that bitter taste in your mouth for far too long.

What’s more, Dupieux seems overly conscious that transitioning from subtextually self-referential films to outright mockeries of movie-making might totally undermine The Second Act, and so he alters his usually carefree formula by reaching for something more profound via Manuel Guillot’s character, a troubled actor playing an extra playing the comically tense barman of a restaurant also called “The Second Act.” Though Guillot puts in fine work, Dupieux’s attempts at sincerity never quite cohere with the (already hobbled) satire. The more earnest moments never feel like anything more than hastily slapped-on Band-Aids, and the film’s other weaknesses are left oozing. 

As much as it looks like classic Dupieux—high-concept, short runtime—The Second Act marks something of a misstep for the filmmaker, who has so far only dared to indirectly implicate his craft in his satires. In this transition to self-reckoning, the movie trips on itself, and when so many of its elements don’t work as intended, The Second Act does what no Dupieux film has done before: It starts to drag. Once our goodwill runs out, the conceit grows tired, and each minute of what should be another of Dupieux’s spry little amuse-bouches begins to be painfully felt. Lacking the whip-smarts of previous works, The Second Act only winds up feeling as self-important—and as insecure—as the very characters it caricatures.

Director: Quentin Dupieux
Writer: Quentin Dupieux
Starring: Léa Seydoux, Louis Garrel, Vincent Lindon
Release Date: May 14, 2024 (Cannes)

Farah Cheded is a British-Algerian critic and Columbo enthusiast. Her work can be found at outlets including Film School Rejects, Paste Magazine, and The Playlist.

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