Noah (2013)

Noah, a remarkably perceptive short film about the consequences of relying on social media alone to gauge what is happening in real life, has first-rate visuals and a climax immersed in a quiet pathos. 

NoahCanada
4.5*

Directors:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Screenwriters:
Patrick Cederberg

Walter Woodman
Director of Photography:
Patrick Cederberg

Running time: 17 minutes

A kind of Lady in the Lake for the age of Facebook, the 17-minute-long Noah is only shot from the point of view of its central character. The twist is that this POV shows only one thing: the screen of a Macintosh computer, conveying thought processes to us as we skip from Wikipedia, Facebook and Skype to YouPorn and Chatroulette, often to the soundtrack of whatever is playing on iTunes. But we need nothing more, because in so many respects life today is “lived” online, and much of the power of this film lies in the two young directors’ firm execution of rhythmic pans and zooms to build suspense at exactly the right moments.

Co-created by Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman, who were students at Ryerson University during production, the film stars Sam Kantor as the titular Noah Lennox, who is in his final year of high school, but it takes a few screens before we even know what he looks or sounds like. After all, how often are our own faces projected back to us when we are online? But our fingerprints are all over our Internet history, and thus, we immediately recognise Noah (and parts of ourselves) when we see him open Safari to start browsing.

With porn running in the background, he opens Facebook to chat with his girlfriend, Amy, who says they have to talk. He opens Skype to chat with her, but the interaction is awkward because he is not really paying attention, and she is obviously about to broach a serious topic: life and their relationship after high school graduation. The connection is lost, and there is silence, although Noah can see that she received and read his “hello?” on Facebook during this time.

Thus begins an obsessive quest for answers, as Noah browses Amy’s Facebook photos, notices one guy’s name coming up again and again, then wonders what this is all about and eventually pries his way into and violates the most sacred of Amy’s online spaces: her Facebook profile. To ratchet up the tension, Cederberg and Woodman punctuate hyperactive pans and zooms with well-placed pauses to convey hesitation and to make us feel like we are not only inside Noah’s skin but also feeling the same anxiety he is. A cursor hovering momentarily over a button is the calm before the storm as we realise he is about to cross their relationship’s Rubicon.

Noah is insightful, hip and one-of-a-kind. The compelling artistry of its visuals, made elegant thanks to seamless editing and other post-production work that successfully imitates the darting movements of the eyes, and the continued topicality of the themes of technology and isolation mean this film has not aged a day since its release. There is not a single moment that could be trimmed from the film without tarnishing the perfect integration of plot and form that the filmmakers sought and achieved. By the time we reach the climax, which appears like a brilliant sunrise over the soggy marshlands of all that came before, the feeling is one of pure empathy with Noah.

Many a viewer will be drawn to and fascinated by the form but stay to live through this particular moment in the life of a total stranger because the devices and the emotions they evoke are so familiar. And that is something that doesn’t have every day.

Noah is an ark captained by two gifted filmmakers whose execution matches their vision and who steer the narrative seemingly effortlessly towards its majestic conclusion. It is daring and dazzling, and its depiction of a moment of life online feels damn authentic.

Enemy (2013)

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in existential thriller about two men who might just be the same and that is as unconventional as it is spellbinding.

enemy-denis-villeneuveCanada
3.5*

Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Javier Gullón
Director of Photography:
Nicolas Bolduc

Running time: 90 minutes

“Chaos is order yet undeciphered”, reads the epigraph to Enemy, another striking film by one of Canada’s most talented filmmakers, Denis Villeneuve. It’s not clear what this means, exactly, and confusion reigns for much of the film, until the very end, when things start to come together and leave us… completely lost.

Based on The Double, a novel by one of the masters of magical realist writing, Portugal’s José Saramago (author of Baltasar and Blimunda, the most affecting love story I’ve ever read), the film is all about creating a suffocating atmosphere full of tension and mystery that is bewildering yet alluring, a kind of science-fiction film without the science fiction.

Set in an almost unrecognisable Toronto, permeated with an ominous yellow haze, the film opens with a voiceover by Isabella Rossellini, whose character has phoned her son to tell him, in a voice that sounds uncomfortably robotic, she is concerned about his living situation.

We soon get a glimpse of what she is talking about (his threadbare apartment), but not before we see a man walk down a shadowy corridor, filled with the same yellowish light that appears almost everywhere in the film, and join a group of people in a dark room where they look at a woman in high heels who may or may not step on a giant tarantula.

This incident, out of place as it appears to be, will be at the back of our minds by the time the final scene rolls around – one that fully qualifies as bathos, because it unexpectedly serves as the only source of laughter in a very serious film.

What this seriousness comprises is one man’s discovery he has an identical twin, even down to them having the same scars. The man is Adam Bell, and he is a college history teacher. Slightly awkward and childlike, and clearly suffering from a form of depression, he gets a recommendation from a colleague to watch a movie and discovers an actor in the background who is a spitting image of him.

This actor turns out to be Anthony St. Claire, who looks and sounds exactly like him, and even has a wife who closely resembles Adam’s own girlfriend. Adam doesn’t know what to do, even though his classes at the moment are about repetition in history, and we’ve already seen his own life mirror this aspect in other ways.

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as both men in this, his second film for the director in less than a year after another serious turn in Prisoners, but although we follow the twists and turns of the plot, as far as possible, mostly from Adam’s point of view, his inaction or reticence to dig deeper and confront this inexplicable enigma is frustrating, although it could have been much worse in the hands of another director or another actor. Villeneuve and Gyllenhaal maintain the tension throughout with very little dialogue and bucket loads of atmospheric lighting and music, as they reel us in to persuade us the story will reveal its answers in the end.

But anyone familiar with Saramago knows he isn’t big on answers. His style – long sentences and dialogue without quotation marks or attribution, constructed around a central theme or inciting incident – has always been the overriding factor in readers’ appreciation of his work, and his books have not had much success as big-screen adaptations.

Enemy, however, effectively conveys the feeling of the material, and although many viewers will likely be disappointed by the lack of a more explanatory dénouement, they should stay put and watch the end credits, in which a lateral tracking shot from one end of the city to the other makes it very clear this is no ordinary film. As beautiful yet unworldly as anything you can imagine, it may be the most inspired shot from a technical point of view since Andrei Tarkovsky pulled back from a solitary house at the end of Solaris.

Meaning in the film always seems to elude us, as we can almost never know the characters’ thoughts or explain their behaviour. We don’t know whether the colleague’s recommendation at the beginning was by design or by chance, it is tough to understand why a meeting is arranged in a lonely motel an hour outside the city, and moreover why Adam agrees to it, and a scene with him in an empty classroom, in front of an enormous diagram of “chaos” and “order” scrawled on the board, seems entirely out of place because it is so obviously relevant. Once again, we get just enough information to make us want more, but it is always too little for us to decipher the chaos and see the order behind it.

The film makes about as much sense as those of David Lynch, or some of Villeneuve’s fellow Canadian, David Cronenberg. Speaking of Cronenberg, Enemy has one of the most brutal and best-staged single-take car crash scenes you are ever likely to see, and it reminds us how skillfully the director sometimes uses his camera, as anyone who has seen his earlier works, like Next Floor, would confirm.

With more questions than answers, Enemy won’t be to everyone’s liking, but even though it sometimes feels like a version of Żuławski’s Possession, though thankfully without a hysterical Isabelle Adjani running around, the mysterious ambience is spellbinding, and our minds stay busy because we keep wondering what will happen next.

Stories We Tell (2013)

Sarah Polley’s semi-documentary seeks to tell the truth, insofar as it can be told honestly, even while openly admitting it is necessarily constructed and incomplete.

stories-we-tellCanada
4.5*

Director:
Sarah Polley

Screenwriter:
Sarah Polley

Director of Photography:
Iris Ng

Running time: 110 minutes

Not unlike the powerful 2012 Slovak film Nový život, in which documentary filmmaker Adam Oľha looked at the deterioration of his parents’ relationship with the help of archive footage from his childhood, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell builds an insightful film from the family’s Super-8 home movies.

The result is astounding, not only because of the breathtaking revelation at its core, but because the way in which it was constructed is pure genius: The film is intelligent, entertaining and informative, but we also come to realise that Polley’s decision to show how the film itself was made fits perfectly with her subject matter and in fact shields her from expected criticism, not least of which comes from the mouth of one of the main players.

Polley, a 34-year-old Canadian actress and director who has starred in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words, among others, here traces her own life through the eyes of her father, her siblings and her parents’ friends and acquaintances. The goal is to get at the real story that involves her late mother, the only person directly implicated who does not provide her side of the events.

These events entailed a secret that became an open secret before it became a bomb shell. I can be general here without giving much away by saying that Polley was not the daughter of the man she always thought was her father. But who this other person was, and how she found him, is the domain of the film’s content, which you have to see for yourself to believe.

At first glance, it seems Polley approaches her subject matter very matter-of-factly, by interviewing all the parties who are still alive and quizzing them on what they knew and when they knew it. Their facts take the form of a story, necessarily tied to their own points of view and subjective experiences, but we get a very coherent and cohesive, allhough not entirely comprehensive, narrative that flows together and is fed by the words of all these individuals.

However, as archive footage accumulates of incidents that couldn’t possibly have been filmed at the time, or of which such footage would be incredibly hard to come by, we start asking ourselves whether Polley in fact staged some of the historical events she purports to portray with actual footage.

When Polley answers our question late in the film, it immediately becomes apparent why she shot her story in a way that is not strictly the domain of the documentary film. While her focus is always on her mother, and the strategy is to use as much material as possible, be it from the past or from her interviews in the present, Polley does eventually come around to examining her own role as storyteller.

Her parents were both actors; in fact, her mother, Diane, fell in love with Michael because the role he was playing at the time was strong and interesting. The secret Diane kept from Michael, about Sarah’s father, would also require her to play a role by pretending that her lie was the truth. But at one point a central character says his side of the story may contain elements that are misremembered but none that is a lie. That throwaway comment, as well as his objection to the director’s inclusion of other voices besides his in the story, makes us understand the film can only be the asymptote of reality (an old idea borrowed from film André Bazin), reaching toward it but never reaching it entirely faithfully.

Super 8 continues to signal reality very strongly to an audience for whom anything that resembles home video footage still evokes a robust feeling of truthfulness for the vast majority of viewers. That is, of course, what made J.J. Abrams’ monster film Super 8 both compelling and disorientating.

But when Polley starts showing us how the film was actually made, in a way that sought to enhance the storytelling potential of her work without any attempt to defraud the audience or misrepresent the story itself, it is a stunning moment of realisation that this is much more than just another documentary. It is a work that reflects on the possibility of finding truth in a work that is always already edited and therefore manipulated.

Stories We Tell has moments of fun and tremendous comedy scattered along the generally informal quest for truth, and even if we agree that no film can reproduce the past as it was, Polley has given future filmmakers a roadmap to engage the audience by deploying very sympathetic individuals and asking the questions we ask ourselves while watching the film.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013

Brooklyn (2015)

Based on the novel by Colm Tóibín, story of Irish immigrant to the United States in the early 1950s is filled with compassion and tenderness.

Brooklyn_1Sheet_Mech_7R1.inddIreland/UK/Canada
4*

Director:
John Crowley

Screenwriter:
Nick Hornby

Director of Photography:
Yves Bélanger

Running time: 110 minutes

For anyone who has ever moved far away from their parents and their childhood home to pursue new opportunities that did not immediately manifest themselves, Brooklyn will be an evocative, deeply felt (though for some perhaps too optimistic) depiction of the struggles of adapting in a new country, even one as accepting as the United States of the early 1950s.

The New York City neighbourhood that shares its name with the title of John Crowley’s heartwarming film about one of the hundreds of thousands of post-war immigrants represents a world and ultimately a home for Eilis (pronounced “eye-lish”) Lacey, a 20-something girl from rural Ireland. Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) is bright and dedicated, but she cannot achieve her full potential working at the general store in Enniscorthy, whose generally laid-back atmosphere may have escaped because of the terrible economic climate in the country following World War II.

Eilis’s father passed away a few years earlier, and she is living with her older sister, Rose, who has a job as a bookkeeper, and her mother, who has little financial independence. But Eilis is determined to make something of herself, and thus she undertakes the nauseating journey across the Atlantic, along with so many other Irish immigrants, some first-timers, others returning from a visit to their former home, to New York City.

She settles in the Irish immigrant–heavy Brooklyn, in a boarding house overseen by the strict but witty Mrs Kehoe, played with more than a smidgen of naughty relish by Julie Walters. Father Flood, a longtime immigrant who facilitated her move to the 48 states, secures a job for her at a department store, but when she starts receiving letters from back home, she quickly becomes a homesick duck out of water, turning reticent, introverted and generally down in the dumps.

The film, based on Colm Tóibín’s eponymous novel, is deliberately paced to take her higher when she meets the Italian Tony – a shy young man who looks like a young Gene Kelly (incidentally, the two watch Singin’ in the Rain together at the cinema) and worships the ground she walks on – and achieves enormous success in her accounting studies before taking her lower with an emotional trip to Ireland that makes her question her decision to move to the New World.

Throughout the entire film, the focus is almost exclusively on Eilis, and it would be difficult not to empathise with her plight as she makes her way in a world that, despite it being Anglophone, is almost completely foreign to her. Crowley also subtly hints at the communication difficulties that existed at the time, as a telephone call between Ireland and the United States was a privilege afforded to very few and had to be organised and booked via special channels.

The cinematography, like the story itself, is infused with a sense of romanticism. The images are luminous while retaining a slighty hazy quality, hinting at an almost dreamlike state of mind as Eilis tries to work through her fantasy of living in America to forging her own path. Luckily for her, New York City is almost filled to the brim with good-hearted people who welcome her into their midst – quite a contrast to the refugee-phobic rhetoric of many U.S. politicians and their supporters that is making headlines as of this writing in November 2015.

Unlike other films about Irish immigrants to the United States, such as Jim Sheridan’s brilliant but underseen In America or Alan Parker’s Angela’s Ashes, Brooklyn is not mired in misery or peppered with unsavoury characters and situations that show the rougher side of adapting to a new country and its people. Crowley’s view of the United States is uplifting and shimmers with compassion for the local population. In a way, the representation perfectly fits the time period perfectly and seeks to present us with a character pursuing the American Dream without losing the connection to her family and community an ocean away. The only truly odious moments take place within the confines of the grocery store in Enniscorthy, but while they have a very important function, they last mere moments before goodness overthrows their fleeting dominance.

With humor, tenderness and a beautiful love story, Brooklyn is a tale that is as optimistic as an incoming immigrant who has not yet experienced the clash of cultures or any hints of xenophobia. Its central character’s determination to start a new life, one that she chooses for herself, is very appealing, and the wisdom she picks up along the way marks her engagement with her surroundings in a way that promises a bright future, despite life moving on and bonds inevitably breaking.

Viewed at the Black Nights Film Festival 2015

Tom at the Farm (2013)

Tom at the FarmCanada/France

3*
Director:

Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter:
Xavier Dolan

Michel Marc Bouchard
Director of Photography:
André Turpin

Running time: 95 minutes

Original title: Tom à la ferme

Xavier Dolan is an immensely gifted filmmaker. His début, I Killed My Mother (J’ai tué ma mère), was experimental, visually stunning and inventive, and it had a grasp of rhythm that belied his age — he was 20 years old when it screened in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2009. Most importantly, it suggested a voice all its own with little recourse to the works of other filmmakers, even if one of the best sequences in the film was very similar to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Mystery of Picasso (le Mystère de Picasso).

But his follow-up, Heartbeats, was infused with slow-motion and repetitive music immediately recognisable as being inspired by Wong Kar-Wai. And his third film, Laurence Anyways, about a man who wishes to transition to a female body, had images that brought to mind the perfectly framed visuals of Stanley Kubrick.

Now comes the Hitchcockian Tom at the Farm, in which a young man is virtually held hostage on a farm by the older, homophobic brother of his late boyfriend. But things are not quite as they seem, and the significance of all of Dolan’s personal touches to the narrative are outweighed by the heavy-handed use of Gabriel Yared’s bombastic music that liberally borrows from Bernard Herrmann’s scores for Vertigo and Psycho, in other words: Be prepared to hear a lot of strings played very loudly.

It is a real shame, because Dolan’s story has a lot to work with at the outset. Main character Tom (Dolan) drives to a farm deep in rural Quebec that he clearly has never visited before. He is anxious and upset, and when he arrives at the lonely farmhouse, covered in fog, no one is home. He finds a key on the front porch and enters, but not before we notice the passenger door on his black Volvo is a different color, obviously recently replaced.

Inside, Tom falls asleep on the kitchen table and is awoken by the elderly woman of the house, Agathe (Lise Roy), asking him what he is doing in her house. Tom was the boyfriend of her late son, Guillaume, whose funeral is the next day. But Tom dare not say anything to her, especially when her eldest son (whom Guillaume, bizarrely, had never mentioned) grabs him during the night and tells him how he will behave if he cares about his own survival, or something like that.

This scene with the brother, whose face is obscured at first and then revealed in a loving close-up as the handsome, bearded Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal), is unmistakably homoerotic. But what Dolan wishes to accomplish is far from obvious. The audience will almost certainly expect, because of this confrontation in the dark and many other ambiguous moments, that Tom and Francis will end up together. That is not exactly the case, although because of his physical resemblance to his later brother, Tom forms an attachment to him, and because of Tom’s presence on the otherwise deserted farm, Francis grows closer to him, too. All the while, he continues to bully Tom into fabricating stories about Guillaume’s supposed girlfriend back home in Montreal, which will engender enormous frustration in anyone who values equality and rejects discrimination.

We are taken on wild goose chases, as Dolan seems to suggest Francis is on the verge of revealing some big secret to him, before the moment evaporates and we are left with nothing but our imagination. In one bizarre scene, Francis snorts some cocaine and decides to start dancing with Tom in the shed. This is one of the most sexual scenes in the film, but as with all the others, it seems to come out of nowhere and ultimately confuses us more than it answers any questions. Tom’s reluctance to ask some of these basic questions, including the reason for the entire town being openly hostile to Francis, also leaves us shaking our heads.

The worst, however, is a chance encounter right at the end that is almost too ridiculous to stomach and has us wondering how on earth Dolan thought he could get away with having a scene that is so implausible because it neatly ties up a story from an earlier monologue.

Tom at the Farm has some beautiful scenes, and Dolan’s face keeps our interest even when the shots tend to drag on for a very long time, but the film lacks the humor of Hitchcock and the claustrophobia of Polanski to turn his material into gold.

Orders (1974)

Les OrdresCanada

4*
Director:
Michel Brault
Screenwriter:
Michel Brault
Director of Photography:
François Protat
Michel Brault

Running time: 107 minutes

Original title: Les Ordres
Alternative English title: Orderers

It was almost as if the Canadian government had too much space in its prisons, so it rounded up people at random on a large scale to incarcerate, isolate and torture. The experience, as presented in the film, is wholly Kafkaesque: Locked in their cells and interrogated about places they’ve never been to and people they’ve never met, they are never charged or even told what they are suspected of. And yet, it is all based on events that really took place in Canada towards the end of 1970.

The “orders” in the title refer to the justification for this chaos and trampling on fundamental human rights. Though the prison guards treat their new inmates the same way they presumably treat everyone else locked up in prison, nobody can say what the reason for this treatment is, but it must be for a good reason, because the orders come from high up in government.

The actual reason, which director Michel Brault only hints at during a summary at the beginning of the film, is that two political figures were kidnapped by the Quebec Liberation Front, the FLQ. Though never named here, they were British Trade Commissioner James Cross and Quebec Province’s Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte. The government deployed the War Measures Act that led to a wave of arrests, but in the end nobody was charged and those arrested were released.

Orders follows five individuals who were arrested by the police, without apparent reason, during this time, and the film is based on some 50 interviews conducted with those who lived through this ordeal. They are Clermont Boudreau, a union representative who works at a weaving mill; Marie Boudreau, a housewife, who is Clermont’s wife; Jean-Marie Beauchemin, a doctor in charge of a community health clinic; Richard Lavoie, who is unemployed and taking care of his young son; and Claudette Dusseault, a social worker.

The most interesting characters are the Boudreau couple and Richard Lavoie, who loses his beard when he is taken to prison in a scene that is devoid of sentiment but provokes great emotion in the viewer, especially as Lavoie is shaved against his will next to another man, who loses his very thick beard, too. The feeling of despair is palpable, and we don’t need the characters to put their objections into words.

Brault, who had a background in documentary filmmaking, here goes about blurring the lines between fiction and fact in a very clever way. When each of these five characters is introduced, they also appear in interview form: The actors introduce themselves, say whom they portray, and then immediately slip back into their role to explain what their characters do, but they do so in the first person. In this way, there is no alienation, but rather an undeniable symbiosis between the real actors and their fictional characters embroiled in historically factual events.

It is interesting to note that when Richard Lavoie is asked for his date of birth, he provides the date of birth of the actor who portrays him, Claude Gauthier.

The film has a political slant, not just to combat the injustice of the situation, but also the hypocrisy of the government and the silence of a large swath of the country that didn’t resist the government’s grab for power and suppression of its own people.

The very first words the film shows us are those of Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, made more than a decade before the events for which he would be responsible:

Whenever any form of authority unjustly abuses a man,
all the other men are also guilty;
for it is through their silence and consent
that they permit the authorities to commit this abuse.

These words ominously, correctly anticipate the stunning silence from the Canadian public in general when the arrests took place. At the end of the film, we learn that, while the media reported on the arrests, there was little reporting when the individuals were eventually released — some after three weeks of incarceration — without ever being charged with any crime.

Orders is mostly in black and white, although the scenes inside the prison, depicting a world away from the everyday, is presented in colour. It is unclear whether this was meant to give a documentary quality to life outside the prison whereas the incarceration is presented as something almost unbelievable, but what is certain is that the prison scenes have more artistic freedom than the scenes outside (with the exception of a final crane shot, at odds with the rest of the film).

In particular, there is a shot similar to the famous scene in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver when Travis Bickle is rejected by a girl over the phone and the camera tracks away rather than show us his heartache. Here, we see Clément Boudreau, who had been on a hunger strike because he received only “pig swill”, or cold porridge, day in and day out, finally getting some crisps and a can of Coke. He breaks down in tears as the camera pulls back to leave him his privacy. It is a breathtakingly powerful scene that respects the character and emphasises the pain he is going through in a visually striking way. A slightly more “filmic” representation of the material involves the fainting of Lavoie, shot as a slow-motion fade-out.

The film gives an intimate portrait of some of the individuals who were affected by the Canadian government’s acts during 1970’s October Crisis, and while many may criticise the film for not naming names, the focus on the people themselves shows that Brault was interested in the effect of the events on people, rather than looking for answers about their origins.

I Killed My Mother (2009)

J'ai tue ma mereCanada

4*
Director:
Xavier Dolan
Screenwriter:
Xavier Dolan
Director of Photography:
Stéphanie Weber-Biron
Running time: 96 minutes

Original title: J’ai tué ma mère

If Antoine Doinel was bipolar and gay, perhaps his story would have looked a little like that of Hubert Minel.

His French counterpart — and particularly his actions in Les Quatre cents coups (The 400 Blows) —  is indirectly referenced at many turns in the film, the interview with a psychologist in Truffaut’s film here becoming a self-shot black-and-white confessional that is repeated throughout.

Hubert is in his late teens and lives with his mother, whom he obviously despises. Over time, we get the impression this is not just everyday conflict between a teenager and his parent(s), but Hubert has other issues, some related to him not having told his mother he is gay, others perhaps having more to do with his mental health.

This début film of Dolan, who plays Hubert and was only 19 years old when he directed this self-written screenplay in the autumn of 2008, is as artistic as it is intense. The mother-son couple spend much of their time either engaged in passive-aggressive interaction or screaming at each other (sometimes Dolan starts speaking and doesn’t stop, while the camera stays on him for an extended period of time), but while the mother, played by television actress Anne Dorval, often tries to shrug her shoulders at her child’s behaviour, the petulant Hubert goes from one extreme to the other in hopes of manipulating his mother into letting him do his own thing.

That approach is not bearing much fruit, and one day at school when he receives an assignment to question his mother about the family’s financial situation, he tells the teacher his mother has died. This is a line taken directly from Truffaut’s directorial début, The 400 Blows, which was also about a single child, although Truffaut’s Antoine had a much friendlier school environment.

Dolan’s use of his camera is striking, although there are moments when it crosses the threshold of pretension, as in his character’s supposedly self-shot confessional tapes — which nonetheless are not entirely static, proving someone else was behind the lens — which have his face cut off at the nose, showing us only his bottom half of his face, sometimes for an extended period of time.

What is truly amazing to watch is the one scene of intimacy, which takes place one day when Hubert and his boyfriend Antonin go to paint Antonin’s mother’s office by dripping paint on the walls à la Jackson Pollock. Noir désir’s “Vive la Fête” pulses on the soundtrack while the scene itself is constructed in many parts that include close-ups of paint added in many colours onto the wall, dripping, running from top to bottom in various patterns, shots of Hubert and Antonin eagerly throwing paint on the wall, a beautiful close-up of the colourful cans of paint, shot vertically from above, and ultimately the action of the two boys making out and having sex, their arms stained in different colours, sometimes accelerated, sometimes slowed down.

 The jump cuts of the paint dripping down the walls are reminiscent of Clouzot’s Le mystère Picasso (The Mystery of Picasso), in which the master’s artwork grows in front of our eyes from one separate artwork to the next. But Dolan, not interested in the final product, has his eye on the beautiful, artistic mobility of the paint in motion.

The transition between scenes is where the pretension sometimes sneaks in to fragment the film into more pieces than necessary, given the division established early on between scenes taking place in black-and-white and colour, respectively. Shots without any motion, a kind of photographic still life,  are inserted instead of a cut or a dissolve in order to add rhythm where none is actually needed, even though the exercise of create motion with static images is admittedly fundamental to the cinematic art form.

Dolan’s sense for visual creativity, thinking outside the box, is breathtaking, from adding text onscreen instead of cutting to a close-up or a voice-over, to using a deliberate continuity error (faux raccord) when he puts a cigarette in his mouth in his bedroom before we cut to his face and he is in black-and-white — confessing in the bathroom that the doesn’t love his mother the way a son should love his mother.

He also makes the world his own, not unlike Tarantino, by actually changing the opening quotation from the original. Even before the opening credits, we see a quotation from Guy de Maupassant, from his novel Fort comme la mort (Strong as Death), from which he excises Maupassant’s contention that love for one’s mother is as natural as it is to live, and he changes “on ne s’aperçoit de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière” to “on ne prend conscience de toute la profondeur des racines de cet amour qu’au moment de la séparation dernière.” The change is subtle and doesn’t change the meaning to any degree, but it is interesting nonetheless and suggests that Dolan, while respecting the conventions (many other authors, from de Musset to Choderlos de Laclos, are cited throughout the film by means of their works), also allows himself to make them his own.

But while the relationship at first seems toxic, unsalvageable, we slowly recognise that Dolan focuses on some particularly hurtful moments for the mother, and treats them with the respect they deserve. What is equally interesting is the framing of the two individuals: Whether in the car or at the dinner table, they are very often framed in a two-shot, sitting next to each other instead of opposite each other. While this pretends they are on the same level, equally vulnerable to our gaze, it also shows they are not making eye contact and therefore communication is obstructed.

Hubert’s confessions about his feelings and his mother’s true feelings about her situation, whether silently whispered to herself or in a moment of unleashing pent-up anger of years over the phone, we get a good sense for both of these characters and learn to accept the difficulty they face getting to know and accept each other. In this way, Dolan shows an acute sense for showing us the many sides of his characters and giving human drama a human face, and makes his entry onto the world stage with elegance and insight.

Polytechnique (2009)

PolytechniqueCanada

4.5*
Director:
Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter:
Jacques Davidts
Director of Photography:
Pierre Gill

Running time: 77 minutes

It would be inappropriate to call a film about a mass shooting “lyrical”, but Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique comes as close as possible to such a description without undercutting the horror and the human impact of the events it depicts.

A recreation of the 1989 shooting at the Montréal Polytechnique university that left 14 students dead, another 14 injured, and a dead gunman, the film is shot in black and white and is intimate in its portrayal of three individuals deeply affected by the events.

At first, it’s unclear what the filmmaker’s approach is to the telling of his story. The opening scene shows a very immediately recognisable university environment: the copy room, where students are making photocopies of notes. Suddenly, piercing shots ring out from a hunting rifle and the two girls in the foreground fall to the floor, before the rest of the students in the room realise what has happened and start to panic.

We then cut to that same morning, in the apartment of the killer, where he is packing up his gun and bullets. He is behaving lifelessly, stares off into space and speaks but one word to his housemate. On the voiceover, we hear him speak his suicide note, in which he rants about women and the rights they demand and how they should be at home rather than stealing jobs that belong to men.

We don’t get a clear sense of this man, who doesn’t have a name in the film but whose real-life counterpart was Marc Lépine. But as the film plays out, it becomes clear how cleverly it was put together, as the film’s “present” (the shooting) seeps into its past and its future, not firmly connecting the threads but leaving us with a sense of coherence that is at once satisfactory and poignant.

There are many brief instances of the killer shooting the girls on campus, but there are even more moments of silence, almost never for the sake of tension (with the exception of the moment when the killer waits, rifle in hand, outside the first classroom where the victims would be his first), but because it is in tune with our minds going blank at the shock of the events unfolding before our eyes. When there is chaos, during a shooting or when a student named Jean-François rushes to inform security of the massacre, we are in the moment, but every second of silence makes us acutely aware of the spectre of death that hangs over this institution of higher learning on that snowy day in early December.

The killer’s actions are treated mostly as senseless, and his suicide note is the only insight we get into his act and his personality. Rather than focus on the events that brought him to this point, as done by the best film ever about a school shooting, the Estonian Klass, this film looks at two characters — one boy, Jean-François, and one girl, Valérie, both engineering students — whose lives changed forever on that day. Polytechnique is much more similar to Elephant, although Gus van Sant’s film spends more time with the killers, hinting at their reasons for feeling excluded by their peers; on the other hand, Villeneuve directs with a firm hand that produces a stylish work of art that is intellectually and emotionally mature. Jean-François’s consideration of Picasso’s Guernica in the copy room is proof of Villeneuve’s mastery of the medium of film, as this moment has nothing exaggerated or self-conscious about it.

But then, Villeneuve is one of Canada’s best directors. In his short film Next Floor, a group of people eat an impossibly rich meal until they are so heavy that the floor gives way and they fall onto the floor below, only to continue eating until the floor crumbles and they fall onto the next one. It is a surreal, heavily metaphoric work that is incredibly stylish and is both ominous and funny, using only visuals and minute audio cues. 

And in the widely acclaimed Incendies, his characters travel back to the country their mother came from — Lebanon — to eventually uncover a terrible tragedy that haunts them and us right until the very end.

Polytechnique has numerous seemingly insignificant moments that are later revealed from a different angle to give emotional resonance to the journey of the characters, especially Jean-François, and they are all well spaced out and never feel rushed or contrived. At key moments, Villeneuve cuts away from the massacre to show us an empty apartment, or a snow-covered landscape that break the tension but in retrospect add a great deal of depth to the events in the present.

The killings are senseless to those who have to live with the consequences of such a tragedy, and this message is the most important reference point for the viewer of this remarkable film.