Quentin Dupieux returns with The Second Act, a playfully dour satire on the film industry that sees the French absurdist delve further into the apocalyptic mood and gallows humor of his recent Yannick. The Cannes opener stars some of the biggest names in the French film world as heightened versions of themselves: actors working on a film within the film (and perhaps a film within that), a conceit that allows them to break the fourth wall, basically winking at the audience conspiratorially while taking passing shots at themselves and some of the hands that feed them. It’s all in good fun, of course. It’s also quite inside baseball––not that that mattered at the premiere, though you do have to wonder how it might resonate going forward.

Selected to raise the curtain on the world’s most prestigious film festival, The Second Act rolled moments after the opening ceremony closed, and I would love to know just how Dupieux and his team felt sitting in the Lumiere’s hallowed seats tonight, surrounded by the targets of his film’s jibes. Of course it’s always easy to poke fun at the wealthy and glamorous, but after a ceremony in which little was said of the festival’s currently striking staff or the MeToo bombshell about to engulf the French industry (not to mention some other things happening in the world), Dupieux deserves some credit––however serendipitously––for taking aim at the barrel. (It was interesting to see Variety describe the standing ovation that followed as “robotic.”) At one point, Léa Seydoux’s character rages that what she and her co-stars are doing is probably about as useful as a rendition of “Nearer, my God, to Thee” on the deck of the Titanic. Sometimes all you can do is laugh.

In another piece of curious programming, the only other film to play today was a new restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon––one of cinema’s longest sagas in ways greater than its runtime. Gance’s epic was released in 1927, the same year Lindbergh flew the Atlantic, and has since been recut about as many times as the gardens at Versailles. The film’s length has variably shrunk and swollen over the years, from as many as nine hours to as few as three. In 1980, there was a print edited by Francis Ford Coppola. Another premiered in 1979 on an open-air screen in Telluride, where a fragile Gance, just two months shy of his 90th birthday and two years shy of his death, watched on from his hotel room window. This latest, edited by Georges Mourier, runs for seven hours, of which a relatively paltry 220 minutes were shown. If this is an intentional piece of counter-programming, you have to hand it to the team: by contrast, The Second Act marks Dupieux’s eighth feature in six years, not one of which has stretched beyond the 80-minute mark. And Dupieux’s work seems to only be getting smaller: more distilled and direct in what the filmmaker wants to say. That there is still room for both, on our screens and in our hearts, does lift the spirits.

All of which is a rather convoluted and longwinded way of saying that Dupieux, like comedy, is always at his best when working fast. The beauty of his filmmaking is that you immediately grasp the idea, quick as an elevator pitch, and are headed for the exit long before the joke goes stale. Serve that up with some good-looking actors, a little playful innuendo, allow it to get a bit loose, and you usually end up having a pretty good time. This one follows a day of shooting on an unnamed film where the central drama plays out at a roadside café. Louis Garrel plays David, who at the beginning is trying to offload his girlfriend Florence (Seydoux) onto his friend Willy (Raphaël Quenard), who still needs some convincing. David’s attempts to do so are followed in a long take as the two actors gamely walk and spar, breaking character when David gets nervous about his co-star’s comments that skew transphobic and ableist. Dupieux then repeats the trick with Florence and her father, Guillaume (Vincent Lindon), who appears to quit the film mid-sentence before a call from his agent (he’s apparently landed a plum role on a new PTA picture) gets him back in the zone. The four then meet at the cafe and attempt to share a bottle of Burgundy but the waiter, a nervous extra (played by Manuel Guillot), keeps spilling it as he pours. Things slowly escalate.

That’s probably more synopsis than the film needs. Suffice it to say there are jabs at MeToo, AI, fear of being canceled, and the feckless futility of making art as the world burns arounds us. (Though Dupieux will later add a few lines of dialogue that might suggest the opposite.) It can feel a touch contrived, even on-the-nose, but there is more than enough quiet confidence and seasoned quality in performances and filmmaking to stick the landing. I would draw particular attention to Raphaël Quenard (a vision here in his bright red puffer), who gives a wonderfully charged, unpredictable performance as Willy that almost rivals his incredible work in Yannick. Maybe not all hope is lost.

The Second Act premiered at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival.

Grade: B

No more articles