Léa Seydoux in Quentin Dupieux Cannes opener

With thirteen feature films made since 2007, and six in the past four years, French DJ and director Quentin Dupieux is clearly no slacker. Not only did he direct all of these films, he also wrote, shot and edited them, as well as composed many of their scores.

Starting with his surreal, deadpan debut, Rubberand up to and including last year Yannick And Daaaali!Dupieux has had an impressively productive run, gradually improving with each new film while honing a style and tone that was entirely his own.

The Second Act

It comes down to

It doesn’t get more meta than this.

Location: Cannes Film Festival (out of competition, opening film)
Form: Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Louis Garrel, Raphaël Quenard, Manuel Guillot
Director, screenwriter: Quentin Dupieux

1 hour 22 minutes

However, if there is one drawback to this incessant activity, it is that his films all have very short running times because they tend to lack classical denouements. They’re well-executed, high-concept affairs that combine comedy, sci-fi, horror, and other genres in fun ways, but they often play out like long second acts with no real ending.

Dupieux may have been aware of this mistake when he decided to name his latest feature film The Second Act (Le Deuxième acte), although it is unclear whether he was being ironic or not. What is certain is that this is his first work to tackle his own profession head-on, in a Pirandello-esque film-within-a-film that plays out as a twisted and noisy take on François Truffaut’s behind-the-scenes favorite, Day for night.

Like Truffaut, Dupieux satirizes the unerring egos of some of France’s most famous actors, revealing the sparks that fly when those egos collide on set. But he also tackles more contemporary topics, such as the rise of AI as a cost-cutting tool, and the late arrival of cancel culture and the #MeToo movement within the French film industry.

Regarding the latter, rumors that accusations against certain renowned actors, producers and directors could emerge in the French press have been reversed. The Second Act ended up in more of a meta-affair than Dupieux probably ever intended – especially since a few scenes in his film deal with these very issues. This could, perhaps ironically, earn the film even more attention when it opens this year’s Cannes Film Festival, along with a near-simultaneous release on French screens.

Dupieux pulls the rug out from under us in the first major scene, which involves an extremely long conversation between Willy (Raphaël Quenard) and David (Louis Garrel), two friends strolling through the quiet countryside talking about a girl named Florence. (Léa Seydoux) with whom David wants to bring Willy into contact. But wait: Willy keeps looking at the camera and David keeps telling him to stop saying inappropriate things.

Willy and David are not in fact two old friends, but rather actors playing them in a movie. The same goes for Florence and her father, Guillaume (Vincent Lindon), who can barely get through their own scene before losing faith, not just in the sappy romance they’re creating, but in movies in general. That is, until he gets a call from his agent telling him that Paul Thomas Anderson wants to cast him in his latest feature film.

PTA quickly becomes a running gag The Second Act – a symbol of the influence that certain Hollywood directors still exert over French actors, especially those frustrated with their own industry. Other names are also dropped, including Mel Gibson’s during a hilarious rant from Willy, while the four French stars appear to be playing only slightly exaggerated versions of themselves: Seydoux is the spoiled starlet unsure of her own talent; Garrel, the seductive sage who hides his ego behind good manners; Lindon, the seasoned veteran with no patience for amateurs; and Quenard, the obnoxiously funny newcomer whose working-class origins and diction separate him from the rest.

They all eventually meet at a roadside diner called The Second Act, where they argue some more, switching back and forth between their characters in the movie being made and the actors playing them in the movie about the movie being made. At one point, a nervous waiter (Manuel Guillot) steps in to serve them wine, and his inability to pour a glass without spilling it everywhere becomes another joke that quickly turns horribly sour.

Or has it? Dupieux fools us again, with a new twist where the actors change into a different group of actors who no longer play themselves. There’s also a director, in the form of an AI avatar on a laptop, who shows up to robotically comment on their work, withholding rewards from cast members who haven’t performed sufficiently.

Is this the future of filmmaking? And even more: is it necessarily worse than a bunch of narcissistic French stars having panic attacks and ego trips on set? Dupieux doesn’t give us an answer, and like his other films, this one ends with no real ending.

What is different this time is the manner in which his actors – including the charismatic Quenard, who was also the headliner Yannick – say some very cancel-worthy things that may or may not be the director’s own thoughts, and in any case are quickly lost in the arthouse metaverse he’s concocted here. The medium clearly counts more than the message of the former French Touch DJ: it is cinema like a huge turntable where you can remix, scratch and sample concepts to create your own special sound.

In this way, The Second Act is probably his strongest film to date, and certainly the first that could cause any controversy. Not only is the script cleverly written, but the cinematography, including four epically long tracking shots, and the editing, in which all the jokes are perfectly timed, are also well mastered. The fact that Dupieux did all this himself certainly deserves praise.

The director also shows a real talent for making some of France’s brightest current talents funnier than they’ve ever been, especially the often dour Seydoux, who delivers one of the film’s most laugh-out-loud moments during a phone call with her mother. There’s perhaps nothing Dupieux can’t do at this point, except maybe try to make a plain, ordinary movie – not that he’d ever want to.