La vérité/Guilt (2011, Marc Bisaillon)
It is preferable for one to lie about one’s accidental sins and continue living a happy life or incur the risk punishment by facing the cold, hard facts? What if one knows perfectly well that the sin was unintentional, the result of one’s miscalculations as opposed to any ill intent? The problematic nature of the dilemma thickens considerably if the sin in question involves the death of an innocent. Such is the mounting pressure that weighs down on Gabriel’s (Pierre-Luc Lafontaine) mind and heart as he struggles to get through everyday teenage life following a nightmarish accident that leads to an elderly man’s death one night after getting drunk with his best friend Yves (Émile Mailhiot). Neither chooses to confess just yet. Yves, the brasher member of the duo, succeeds in living on with his life, but Gabriel, more shy and honest, feels the guilt choking him as days turn into weeks and weeks become months. Marc Bisaillon, another small Québec director who ventures into challenging psychological territory with his stories and characters, develops this themes of guilt and truth until they inevitably crash together.
In the movie's opening scene, Gabriel, late teens, turns on a lively piece of music in the family’s living room, sweeps his mother Caroline (Geneviève Rioux) away from her cooking and together they dance. This event is inter-cut with a football game being played back at school. One running back in particular is running up and down the field as if there were no tomorrow. Gabriel and his mother dance happily and the running back continues to rip the field the opposing defense apart. Could the boy and the player be the same person? Eventually Gabriel and Caroline crash onto the couch, panting. Caroline turns to her son and asks if today is the big football game. Stunned, Gabriel rushes up, thanks is mother for the good time and leaves the house. Cut to Gabriel taking pictures of his friend Yves, the school’s star running back, scoring yet another touchdown in the championship game. This is but one of the playful ways in which director Marc Bisaillon toys with the audience’s expectations in his new drama La vérité. It is a funny decision to continuously surprise the audience in strange little ways by withholding the entire truth behind certain scenes, misleading the audience into believing one thing and then surprising the them with a revelation that changes the nature of a scene. Bisaillon takes the idea of withholding the truth, which is what Gabriel practices for the majority of the film, and expands it across multiple cinematic possibilities. His mother Caroline is a cop, ironically enough, which leads to another couple of scenes where the viewer believes one thing is happening, only to be fooled moments later with an additional revelation. As the story and drama get richer and more intense, Bisaillon does not play this game as much, preferring to spend more effort in exploring Gabriel’s mounting sadness, depression and waning social skills. Had Bisaillon chosen to continue confounding audience expectations, La vérité could have been proclaimed a mini masterpiece, but it remains an aspect of the film worthy of mention. He is a more adventurous director than I had foreseen, very much in tune with the possibilities found in the language of cinema.
His steady direction also comes into play with regards to the realistic tone, pacing, cinematography. Despite what little tricks Bisaillon plays at times with the notion of ‘truth,’ La vérité is a serious film. It is also a very realistic one. The temptation must have been there to construct scenes of Hollywood-esque tension in which the truth behind the ‘murder’ of the elderly man as it is being called in the local news media (even though the audience knows neither Gabriel nor Yves wanted to actually kill the man) is about to be revealed, be it intentionally via investigative methods or out of pure dumb luck, as Gabriel and Yves desperately attempt to flee their unfortunate fates. None of that occurs. The truth of that matter is that the police have very little evidence to work with and so the case goes cold after a few weeks. This suites Yves’ fancy because he has a planned future involving fireman school and eventually a career in that domain. His guilt subsides quickly. Gabriel, the character the film follows more closely, cannot abate what eats him inside. A pretty and charismatic girl (Juliette Gosselin) from school who also enjoys photography beckons, fun times at home with his mother are always a comfort, life as a regular teen can continue if he chooses such a course for his the rest of his life to take. But after one happened that eventual winter night after far, far too much drinking, how much of a regular teenage is he any more? With nothing to stop him, Gabriel’s decision to avoid confession slowly destroys his previously upbeat outlook on life. Only he stands in the way of justice, but giving himself in entails dire consequences for the rest of his days. The build-up to the finale is deliberate, resulting in a dark journey which is all the more effective because of it. Marc Bisaillon has a strong eye for the material. La vérité mixes things up with what is now referred to as ‘shay cam’ and some very carefully calculated, steadier shots. The lighting, especially in the scene when the ill-fated accident occurs, is especially gorgeous.
Finally, credit should go to the cast. Pierre-Luc Lafontaine fits the mould perfectly as a friendly, well-meaning but slightly dopey teenager during the first section of the movie. It would not seem the actor is very much older than the age of his character, therefore we can assume that he may be familiar with such a personality. He and Émile Mailhiot, as the jock Yves, have a solid rapport. It is easy to tell that despite the different backgrounds they come from (Gabriel from modest means and Yves from a very wealthy family), they indeed have been friends for some time already at the start of the film. The challenge to their bond arrives with great impact, the seeds of frustration and sadness opening up the cracks of their once strong friendship. Gabriel comes to visit Yves after the latter moves to away to pursue fireman training, and this annoys Yves greatly. The reason for his old friend’s visit is no secret. Gabriel can no longer remain silent. Sooner or later, the truth needs to emerge. Lafontaine’s transformation feels real, his performance refreshingly mature for such a young actor. His mother, played by Geneviève Rioux, is delightful. Happy go lucky, she does not bring her work home. She loves her son dearly and would do anything for him. The flip is that Rioux is great at expressing increasing confusion at her son’s changing nature. Finally, there is Juliette Gosselin as Lydia, a girl at school who fancies Gabriel and vice versa. Of the four main actors, she gets the least screen, but takes advantage of every second awarded to her. Her charisma was so attractive it became small wonder the protagonist wrestle mightily with what to do about her. He wants to be with Lydia, but what would be the purpose of confessing love if he also going to confess his crime and go to jail? The love angle takes up the least amount of time in the film, but it nonetheless serves a purpose in demonstrating the difficult task which lays ahead for Gabriel.
La vérité ends up being a highly satisfying drama. Subdued and realistic, it plays its cards smartly and avoids the clichés. It comes highly recommended.