Sunday 21 June 2009

Léolo (1992)

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon
Stars: Ginette Reno, Pierre Bourgault, Maxime Collin and Giuditta del Vecchio

He lives in the Mile End neighbourhood of Montreal. Everyone thinks he's French Canadian but he refuses to acknowledge this. His favourite maxim seems to be: 'Because I dream, I'm not.' He uses this as a code to live by, thus avoiding a lot of what he calls 'other people's truth'. He even dreams that his father isn't his father because his real father is a Sicilian tomato. No, we're not getting entirely surreal here: this tomato had become wedged inside his obese mother after she falls onto a truck of tomatoes onto which a Sicilian farmer had masturbated three days earlier. At least so his dream goes.

His name is Leo Lozeau but he calls himself Léolo Lozone because he feels that Italy is too beautiful to be kept for the Italians and because of course he can change his own reality by dreaming. Given that his family is not altogether there, both individually and collectively, it's not surprising that he should choose to find escape, and this film speaks to how he manages to do that: if not to find a complete escape from his large, bizarre and dysfunctional family, at least to rework it into an insanity of his own making.

This lunatic asylum of personal history is comprised of memories and reminiscences, told less in accordance with chronology and more in accordance with theme. It doesn't have much in common with anything really, except perhaps Jean-Pierre Jeunet's Amelie, but that only in the quirkiness of human belief and the desire and will to be different. And on that front it's a fascinating glimpse into the human psyche, though a darker one that Jeunet conjured up.

Léolo lives in a freakshow, but as much as we can't help but gawp like tourists at this circus, we connect with the characters within with joy rather than cruelty. They're fleshed out and human in ways that most movies refuse to attempt. Unfortunately writer and director Jean-Claude Lauzon only made two feature films, the other being 1987's Night Zoo, before dying in a plane crash in 1997, so we don't have too much opportunity to revel in his talent. And that's a serious shame.

Léolo lives amongst a slew of family members, who each teeter on their own personal brink of madness. His father, who looks like a bizarre cross between Peter Lorre and Zelda Rubenstein, has a mantra, rigidly enforced, that a shit a day keeps the doctor away, but this doesn't seem to help the Lozeaus much because they all seem to cycle through the same places: hospitals and insane asylums. Maybe they should have stayed with the traditional apples instead of Friday night laxative shock treatments. We don't see too much of Nanette and Rita, his sisters, because they get quickly lost in that cycle, but we do get to see plenty of brother Fernand, literally.

He starts out as a wimpy kid who gets his nose broken by a twopenny alley thug, so takes up bodybuilding, with improvised weights and ends up as a young Lou Ferrigno type. This gets extreme, as he walks around with weights on his feet and pays Leo to sit on his shoulders as he does press ups. In short, he achieves his wish: to look like a threat. As Léolo discovers though, hulking up doesn't cure fear, which was Fernand's problem all along, and fear has to do with a lot of these stories.

It even affects Léolo's introduction to sex. We learn about this as he does, discovering the thing between his legs and realising it wasn't on the pictures in school that the teachers use to teach anatomy. We watch as he discovers masturbation, with a carefully cut slice of liver no less, all cleverly disguised from the camera so this doesn't become child pornography. And we watch him lust after his childhood crush, Bianca by name, who he watches service his grandfather, but not in ways you might expect. He pays her to show her breasts, wash his feet and bite off his toenails. Yet he has to watch her from afar because of fear.

At once though, Léolo is the most sane and the most imaginative of the bunch. He reads the one and only book in the house at night, by the light of the fridge, after wrapping himself up tight to avoid the cold. To afford a bike he dives for fishing lures in a polluted underwater junkyard. After one of the most stunning lines ever to grace a film, 'My grandfather was not a mean man but he'd already tried to kill me,' he turns a near death experience into an underwater treasure hunting expedition. Of course later he returns the murderous favour with disastrous results, ensuring that he ends up in the same ritual of hospital and madhouse that everyone else in the family seems to go through.

Except his mother that is, which is telling, because from what I can gather, the childhood of writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon bears a lot of similarity to that of Léolo. Most of the members of his family spent time in asylums too, with the notable exception of his mother. Jeunet's Amelie is fiction but it incorporates many stories that he had collected throughout his life. I wonder if Léolo worked in a similar way for Lauzon. If so, it's amazing that he even survived long enough to make one movie, let alone two, and I'm not just talking about the rats and the turkey in the bathtub.

The key to the film is the maxim that is repeated throughout: 'Because I dream, I'm not,' but it doesn't unlock the answers to all our questions. In fact we're not even sure who's telling the story. It would initially appear to be Léolo himself as an old man, looking back on his life, but we're soon suggested away from that idea. There's a strange character woven into the framework of the story called the word tamer. He spends his time scrounging through other people's garbage to find their letters and photographs, which he commits to memory then burns so that their souls can be reborn.

It's unclear whether this hobby leads him to the Lozeaus or whether he was there all along, but he's certainly there, interacting with their lives and even changing the direction of them. He tells Léolo's story in narration through reading his journals, but we can't help wonder whether the word tamer is real, whether he's really Léolo or even God. In fact the entire film could be taken literally as the life of Léolo, or as his escape through dream. The word tamer could easily be a fiction in that dream, just as anything and everything else could be too.

Canada is a country that has produced some of the great names of cinema, from Edward Dmytryk to Norman Jewison, from Mack Sennett to David Cronenberg, but it hasn't had much luck in producing films of genius. Those great names tend to end up making their mark in the American system, not least the Canadian director James Cameron who made Titanic, the highest grossing film of all time. This film ranks high on the list of Canadian films, high enough to rate inclusion in a list of the hundred greatest films of all time published in Time magazine by Richards Schickel and Corliss.

While I've now seen it precisely once, with a number of notable interruptions, I can't elevate it that high myself but could easily imagine doing so in the future. This is heady and amazing stuff, more than worthy of further viewings. It feels like a film that would grow with such and elevate itself. I've seen a few of those this year and I need to ensure that I come back to them to see whether my feelings were right or not. I'd be surprised if this one doesn't offend and delight and shock as much on the second viewing and the third as on the first time out.

Technically it's superb, not just with obvious components like the way the camera moves and the angles it watches from, but in the way it uses colour and shade. The sets are stunning, possibly more stunning for their lack of traditional beauty, and the soundtrack is particularly eclectic and beautiful. Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones are the most recognisable names on it, but it's not a rock soundtrack. Most of it is focused on the voice, whether it be in choral music, opera or world music, weaving from Loreena McKennitt to Baaba Maal via the Tallis Scholars, even down to drone pieces that sound reminiscent of Philip Glass's work for Koyaanisqatsi but wouldn't be out of place in a horror film.

This a film that everyone should see, but it's certainly not a film for everyone. In fact it's not even a film for everyone willing to read subtitles, given that it's a Québécois film made in French. However it's certainly a film for anyone with an imagination, anyone who felt different or apart and anyone who really wants to delve into cinema, whatever it is and wherever it comes from, to find those gems that stand apart from the mass of movies to say something special.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Very well put. This film is a thing of beauty, one of the all time great childhood films.

Btw, re Canadian cinema, another amazing childhood film is Guy Maddin's Brand Upon The Brain