‘The Second Act’ Movie Review: A Meta Movie with Hidden Heart (Cannes)

Quentin Dupieux, the director of The Second Act (Le deuxième acte), who was also the writer, cinematographer, and editor of The Second Act, thanks his own brain in the credits. This is entirely what should be expected from Mr. Dupieux, whose works are – and this is meant as an extreme compliment – completely insane. He tends to work in secret, filming in inaccessible closed locations with a minimal budget, and does such phenomenal work that the cream of French-language acting talent is at his disposal. This is because his movies are so utterly unpredictable, with such a disturbing combination of outrageous humor and genuine menace, that they are an undivided pleasure to see if not always super relaxing to watchAll of that said, The Second Act is not one of Mr. Dupieux’s best, but it was chosen to open this year’s Cannes Film Festival not only because he is French, but also because there’s no one else working like him anywhere in the world.

Dupieux’s Signature Chaos Takes on the Film Industry

On the surface, it’s a simple story. David (Louis Garrel) and Florence (Léa Seydoux) are dating. Florence is so certain he’s the one that she’s introducing David to her dad Guillaume (Vincent Lindon), but David is so utterly unattracted to Florence that he’d like to palm her off to his friend Willy (Raphaël Quenard, a star on the rise who walked the Cannes red carpet dressed like a mid-nineties try-hard, down to the waistcoat, gelled hair and colored sunnies). Their rendezvous point is a remote restaurant called The Second Act, where the man who opened it up (Manuel Guillot) did so with hands absolutely shaking with nerves.

The restaurant is approached on foot, a lovely conceit that allows the two pairs to argue their heads off on the way in. As they do so, it becomes apparent, through plenty of breaking of the fourth wall, that the plot described above is actually the plot of a film. All four of the characters are actors, and none of them are entirely thrilled to be on this set. Willy improvises dialogue about Florence’s lack of appeal in such a way that David is convinced they’re both going to be canceled, while Guillaume is so disheartened – by climate change, the pointlessness of acting in the face of it and also how poorly written his part is – that he’s on the cusp of quitting acting altogether. 

A Restaurant, A Broken Nose, and a Life-Changing Phone Call

In the restaurant, Willy insults Guillaume, which leads to Guillaume breaking his nose. Florence, for reasons unclear to herself, helps Willy clean up and then has to tell him off for attempting to kiss her. Guillaume takes a life-changing phone call, and David entertains himself by chatting with the extras. And all the while, the movie is still, somehowattempting to be made. The man with the shaking hands, Stéphane, is the extra tasked with pouring some glasses of wine, and his hands are shaking because he is so beside himself with nerves at his lifetime dream of appearing in a film coming true. 

It’s incredibly unusual to see a work of art handle both the scene and the behind-the-scene so well. And if that’s all this movie was, it would still have been pretty good, but then Mr. Dupieux does it again, turning his story into a commentary on how art is made these days, and by whom. (Other reviews are spoiling this, but they shouldn’t.) The callousness in how that is handled, by design, leads to a dual ending. One half is really sour and upsetting. The other is a stirring defense of the importance of art, even over reality, but done through the metaphor of affairs, which does not exactly necessarily make its case. Oh la la, as a French person might say. 

A Cannes Must-See

And yet the off-kilter way in which The Second Act handles its points means the messages stick like glue. The four main actors are all flawless, Justine Pearce’s costume design uses coats to delineate character perfectly, and the knowing sense of humor includes a long tracking shot of the track used for the tracking shot. The gruesome humanity of his work makes all of Mr. Dupieux’s movies cinematic events not to be missed, especially in the context of this movie’s hidden heart. What can he possibly do next?

The Second Act/ Le Deuxième Acte is now playing at the Cannes Film Festival.

Learn more about the film at the official Cannes Film Festival page about the title.

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