David Jenkins


The Second Act – first-look review

The opening film of the 2024 Cannes Film Festival offers a limp metafictional critique of the modern film industry.

There’s much more smug sanctimony than there is innovation or genuinely novel humour in Quentin Dupieux’ dashed-off doodle, The Second Act, which is a film that wants to have its metafictional cake and eat it (insomuch as a film can do such things). French acting royalty – Léa Seydoux, Vincent Lindon, Louis Garrel and lesser-known Raphaël Quenard – round up, presumably for a bit of a weekend lark, but also to indulge in some lacerating self-criticism and essay the apocalyptic, artistically-bankrupt future of the global filmmaking industry.

Which would be all well and good if Dupieux weren’t so quick to lean on tired tabloid talking points, wacky pop culture references and “cancel culture” as easy-option punchlines, making the film come across like a particularly egregious (albeit self-aware) Netflix comedy special. There’s a deeply uncomfortable and unfunny transphobic tirade within the opening ten minutes which is placed in quotes marks in an attempt to diffuse its apparent viciousness, but you’re left with the sense that Dupieux wants to give something to both the haters and the liberals who would be offended by such a script choice. It’s a hackneyed jab at a brigade of politically correct types who don’t actually exist, and so falls completely flat.

The film is then built around four, pillar-like tracking shots in which two members of the cast engage in what feels like an improvised conversation. Each plays an actor who is playing a part in a strange, bifurcated narrative – later on we learn why the film looks and feels like it does when its writer/director/producer is finally revealed. The joke is that they hate the experience of making this “film”, and they constantly smash down the fourth wall to offer their real feelings on what they believe to be a denigrating and cheap profession.

If there’s anything to be salvaged from the film it’s the actors, who are all on side with the director and savvy with his tricksy MO. Lindon, usually so serious and intense, allows his freak flag to fly, and Louis Garrel fires off some very funny little gestures between line-readings. Quenard is strong, but is saddled with most of the contentious material, while Seydoux has to push back against the ritual humiliations that come with her role.

Maybe from reading this you’re getting a sense of what this film is and what it’s doing, but to intricately describe all of its self-aware nesting layers would be tiresome in the extreme. Godard did this in Le Mepris over 60 years ago, and there have been many variations on the material since (many made by Dupieux!), and this one fronts like its barbs are box fresh, and they very much ain’t. But designer cynicism can only get you so far, and even at a curt 75 minutes, this one feels like an hour too long.

Published 14 May 2024

Tags: Cannes French Cinema Léa Seydoux Louis Garrel Quentin Dupieux Vincent Lindon

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