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The Second Act (2024)

Quentin Dupieux’s “The Second Act,” which opened the 77th Cannes Film Festival, is a somewhat interesting, if half-baked, objet de curiosité about the blurred line between fiction and reality. It’s the classic film-within-a-film, except that realities of the film set and behind-the-scenes drama pretty much hijack and drown the threadbare plot of the fictional project herein.

“The Second Act” opens with Stéphane (Manuel Guillot) driving to a desolate diner named Le Deuxième acte and getting it ready for the day. We don’t learn until much later that Stéphane is actually an extra in a troubled French indie who has aspired to break into acting for so long that he’s suffering a debilitating bout of stage fright.

As for the film he’s in, it involves David (Louis Garrel) attempting to offload Florence (Léa Seydoux) to his pal Willy (Raphaël Quenard). David assures the apprehensive Willy that she is indeed hot; he’s just not that into her. Still, that only exacerbates Willy’s nagging suspicions about what could possibly be wrong with her.

Willy worries that Florence may be trans — because he doesn’t swing that way — or possibly disabled. Breaking the fourth wall, David cautions him the camera is rolling. Though the cancel culture stuff is pretty much relegated to this one scene, post-screening chatter at Cannes assures this will be the one thing everyone is going to latch onto.

Florence is eager for David to meet her dad, Guillaume (Vincent Lindon), at Le Deuxième acte. En route, Guillaume becomes fed up with the movie and begins liberally dispensing sinking-ship analogies and “Titanic” references. Suddenly, he receives a call informing him he’s just landed a part in the next P. T. Anderson picture. Before they even enter the restaurant, Guillaume pulls David aside to brag about his new gig. Still, the veteran gets no respect from the young’uns, especially the boorish Willy.

As you can see, a lot of this is just inside-baseball stuff about what these fictional actors are like behind the scenes. It feels as if the feature-length commentary, often a side feature on home entertainment releases of movies, has been embedded directly into the film.

Mr. Dupieux namedrops even more hot-button topics du jour, with Florence having her #MoiAussi moment with Willy. The writer-director-cinematographer-editor doesn’t meaningfully engage in any of these ideas. Ms. Seydoux and Mr. Garrel are notorious for being French cinema’s premiere nepo babies. The fact that Mr. Dupieux misses such low-hanging fruit lets you know he’s not that serious about satire.

Big band music is deployed to delineate dramatic takes from the film-within-a-film in between the actors’ interpersonal conflicts. The film’s sole music-related credit is for clearance, so it’s safe to assume none of the score is specifically composed for “The Second Act.” The music does strongly evoke Woody Allen’s oeuvre, though this presents another missed opportunity to take shots at the fallen auteur.

It’s these film-within-a-film scenes that truly give us movie magic, with Mr. Lindon and Ms. Seydoux effortlessly switching gears between dual performances. But these moments are too few and far between. Had Mr. Dupieux shown us more of this, perhaps “The Second Act” could have been worthwhile.

Ultimately, the film-within-a-film turns out to have been written and directed by A.I. The real irony is that Netflix, whose filmmaking-by-algorithm practice is common knowledge, serves as a production partner here. Could it be “The Second Act” is some kind of personal vendetta, made begrudgingly much like “The Matrix Resurrections”?

In the third act, David waxes poetic about how cinema is the truth and reality is anything but. Indeed, Mr. Dupieux shows the homophobes from the film-within-a-film to in fact be gay lovers. Guillaume also sports a fake moustache I.R.L., something he does not do while in character. That’s amusing, but so what?


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