Monday, December 13, 2010

Films du Fleur de Lys: Curling

Curling (2010, Denis Côté)

Québécois filmmaker Denis Côté has a penchant for art house cinema. Slow moving stories, elliptical situations, worlds that say a lot when once the viewers peers closely but which seem almost mundane upon first look. The opening scenes to Curling, Côté’s latest effort, exemplify this nicely. The camera (and an eerily bright light) rests on a young girl, 12 years of age, visiting the eye doctor, the latter of which, having determined that the child’s eye sight is weak, begins to comment on how difficult it must be to understand what the teacher writes on the chalk board in class. The girl, reserved in a non-chalant kind of way, lets the adult know that she doesn’t attend school. The second scene has the same girl, this time with her father and again filmed with a single shot like the first, waking back home in the midst of blistering wind along a lonely road somewhere in the countryside. A policeman stops them, curious as to why they would want to walk in such frigid weather. The father replies each of the lawman’s queries, but always with hint with defensiveness. He doesn’t want to talk to this man. He doesn’t like talking to many people. If he knew he lived in a movie world and that an audience was watching his every move, he probably wouldn’t want to talk to us either.

Emmanuel and Philomène (Jean-François Sauvageau and real-life daughter and Julyvonne Sauvageau), the two characters we’ll follow for the rest of the movie, live a sheltered life. Emmanuel has a job, working at a bowling alley, but doesn’t interact much his colleagues. His boss likes to poke some fun at him, although never with ill intent. Emmanuel however, finds nothing to laugh about, ever. For him, everyone is potentially a parasite, someone who can hurt either him or his Philomène, be it physically or emotionally. Even with people he suspects to be nice, such as the new, attractive girl who works behind the counter at the alley, there is constantly the reflex to withhold from any significant connection. Philomène is the greatest victim of Emmanuel’s obsession with seclusion, practiced for an unfounded sense of protection against the world. Emmanuel controls everything, from where she goes (almost nowhere), to what she learns (not much other than the odd history book daddy brings home on occasion). Things get strange (as if they hadn’t been up until that point) when Philomène becomes fascinating with frozen corpses hidden in the forest.

Denis Côté’s indie inclinations in the field of cinema brings out interesting material in the case of Curling. The plot has an intimate feel to it, with Côté preferring the quiet rather than the bombastic. The more I think of it, coupled with the quiet is the uncomfortable. As the master puppeteer, Côté rests his camera within a household that is terribly sad from the point of view of the outside world. Emmanuel, out of love and fear, holds Philomène on the tightest leash imaginable, allowing her to visit only a select few of his co-workers (who are oblivious to the fact that she doesn’t attend school) and even then these visits are so rare that they become events. Every activity they partake in the home is dictated in great detail by Emmanuel, such as when he agrees to play a music disc. He sits awkwardly while Philomène is permitted to dance a little bit. The scenes plays out for two or three minutes but its stay is long enough to welcome the sense of isolation Emmanuel has built around their life. The freakiest aspect is that these brief moments of blissful entertainment for Philomène are just that, blissful, because she has no concept what boys and girls her age do for leisure.

Barriers are artificially constructed by the father figure, but the progression of the stress he feels as those few around him discover what type of life he has set for his daughter is natural. Eventually something will have to give, either he tells them all to buzz off or he will open up, although how is another question altogether. Director Côté does not make a case for Emmanuel, even though a visit to his ex-wife who sits in prison may be mistaken for one. He’s a smarter director than that, and daring in how he challenges viewers to spend over an hour and a half with someone who not clearly sees the world through some very foggy lenses, but whose outlook is also bearing down on a family member who has no control of the situation (even in a realistic sense because she is only 12 years old. This isn’t a 17 year old angst-ridden teenager). In a world that lacks any sort of stimuli, her recurring visits to the frozen corpses adopt an entirely new meaning, even if none is given explicitly. That is one of the major strengths of Côté’s directing style, how he lets scenes and images do more of the talking than the characters. In fact, most of the characters don’t say anything of much interest throughout the entire movie. Talk is cheap by the looks of things in Curling. Then again, with a man like Emmanuel who avoids (or cannot?) engagement, one won’t get very far with small talk. By the end of the scenes however, the attentive viewer is aware that much has transpired. The characters are finely tuned by their actions, reactions and silences. 

A lot rests on Julyvonne ’s shoulders. The role of Philomène demands a degree of sympathy from the audience, but so much that melodrama to creep in or heart strings to be tugged too much. She deserves some pity, but almost as much because she is stupid (not her fault, really) as for the invisible prison bars her father has set up. Julyvonne, who had never acted before getting the role in Curling, brings that sort of nuance to the performance. As a debut, it’s pretty memorable. Jean-François’ task is also demanding, for different reasons. His character is the foolish instigator of this pathetic, shut off existence. Like Y, he can earn a minimal amount of pity, although not much more. Jean-François makes Emmanuel a curiosity, someone so against the norm that we watch because his unorthodox ways fascinate us even though they are difficult to watch. To be honest, they fascinate us because they are unorthodox.

Movies are about taking us to different worlds. Sometimes the world a film presents to us resembles our own, other times not. Curling is obviously set in our world, but features people who don’t seem of our world because you, me and the other people who go see the movie and read this review probably live ‘normal lives.’ I would never raise a family the way Emmanuel does, but I’m always willing to see a story about people who resemble Emmanuel, a man who has nothing but affection for his one and only daughter, but hasn’t the slightest idea of how to properly demonstrate it. Man’s mind working with some of the screws a bit loose, that sort of thing. Curling finds a cozy spot in the category of films that didn’t turn my world upside down, but that will stay with me for a while.


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