Friday, February 25, 2011

Films du Fleur de lys: En Terrains connus

En Terrains connus/Familiar Ground (2011, Stéphane Laflame)

An exercise that could prove to be highly interesting and stimulating would be to survey Québec filmmakers, specifically screenwriters and directors, to better understand what their cinematic influences are. While the English-speaking side of the Canadian film industry produces a genuinely good hit and a genuinely noteworthy piece of artistic cinema every now and then (one thinks of Guy Maddin’s work in recent years and David Cronenberg’s more Canadian flavoured films before that), the Québécois film industry has been a fire storm of critical and box office successes for a solid decade, the latter component being evaluated in relative terms obviously. There are no Avatars around here. Frequent readers know that Between the Seats enjoys the the risk of a fun comparison every now and then, and so today I liken the modern Québecois film, specifically drama, to the modern Japanese film. Sufficiently engaging overalls plots to catch the attention, but mostly propelled forward by character driven narratives, ones that may camouflage themselves with quiet, still exteriors, but which often bottle up rich emotional journeys just beneath the surface.

En Terrains connus, which is openly marketed as a ‘soft science fiction’ film for its lone, uniquely comical sci-fi ingredient, is another entry in a line of solid, rather art house dramas from the province. This one dabbles in comedy as well, so the viewer is left with is a textured drama dependent on excellent acting and deliberately paced direction, some comedy to please a chunk of the masses, and, as we mention earlier, an odd science-fiction plot twist. Stéphane Lafleur helmed wrote and helmed project, and was already a critical darling after 2007’s Continental, un film sans fusil (Continental, A Film without Guns). Pinpointing a category in which one may safely deposit En Terrains connus is a needless gesture. The film does as it pleases, pitting its characters in whatever situation seems fit based on the rules of the world and singular moment they inhabit. Much of it is realistic, but the realism is continuously set off track by quirks and character beats which heighten the experience and break down barriers of set expectations. This diversity makes En Terrains connus a memorable movie as well as an engaging one, an interesting one, and oftentimes a very entertaining one. The story follows a brother and sister pair, Benoit and Maryse (Francis La Haye and Fanny Mallette), who live infuriatingly futile lives. Benoit tends for his ill and ill tempered father (Michel Daigle), while Maryse’s spirit is beaten up by an increasingly bored marriage and a gruesome accident which befell an employee at the plant where she works. A man from the near future (Denis Houle), more specifically from 'next September', warns Benoit that if his sister leaves in the car, she will get into a terrible accident. Rather than shield Maryse from leaving once her patience for those around her runs out, Benoit wilfully accompanies her in the hopes of eluding fate.

Notwithstanding a few moments when emotions get the better of our troubled characters, Lafleur’s film is remarkably quiet and slow paced. Despite there being some zanier aspects to the picture, the director attempts to have the world of En Terrains connus resemble our own. It is the winter, the people the audience follows live in a suburb where less frantic activity occurs, the boredom that can arise from office work as well as from days spent at home to care for a sick person affects not only Maryse and Benoit from the viewer too. When Maryse announces that she is leaving for the family’s country house to temporarily escape from her life, there is both a sense of relief and of fear. She can no longer function adequately with the way things have currently reached a point of stagnation in her life, but the recent warning about a auto route tragedy hangs over her head without her knowledge. What ensues is an unwarranted quest of self discovery for both siblings. In town, neither got along very well, but the tension might have been the result of their own personal flaws and failures, compounded by the hundreds of little annoyances that bit and gnawed at then. Benoit is a something of a social pariah, unsuccessful at keeping his father content, at being romantic to his sort of girlfriend, at making amends with his sort of girlfriend’s young son, easily frustrated and cursed with a terrible inferiority complex.  He wants to do well but not only makes bad choices, he is too quick to blame the rest of the world for his shortcomings. For Maryse, the accident at work (one of the many connections between her and the accident to come) was a spray of icy water on her sleepy face. All of a sudden her marriage seems dull, uneventful and devoid of purpose. Her zombie like state is strangely compatible with Benoit’s reclusive personality.

While the characters are not enjoyable or easy to cheer on, the actors portraying them are nothing but stellar. Francis La Haye is sharp and convincing as a man somewhere in his late thirties who lives a life more fit for a teenager, but a depressed and mightily angry teenager. In many ways, the character of Benoit is living through a period of arrested development, both emotionally and intellectually. La Haye takes what is on the page and drives home the frustration of a man in Benoit's shoes. Not much works in Benoit’s favour, but nor does he himself do much to get out of the rut. Bull-headed would be an apt word to describe him. Fanny Mallete has less heavy lifting to do, working on a more subdued level to provide Maryse with another version of frustration, but a quieter, more reflexive one. The back and forth exchanges begin uncomfortably before reaching a particular peak in the later stages, with La Haye and Mallette showing that they equally up to the task of carrying the film. Some praise should be awarded to Denis Houle, who has a 5 minute cameo as the car dealer from the future. The purpose and introduction of the character are odd to say the least, but Houle plays the part very honestly, in a ‘matter of fact’ sort of way. His comedy of his lone scene, while not aiming for uproarious laughter, is much like the rest of the film: quiet.

Stéphane Lafleur eventually has the two siblings reach a collision point, where there psychologies and emotional awkwardness of both can longer remain under the surface. Despite how they do not get along much of the time, they come to realize that they are most likely more alike than previously estimated. Their compatibility may rest in some commonalities not everyone would find inspirational (they both love loath fireworks!), but nothing can change the fact that a) they remain brother and sister through it all, and b) they can get along, regardless of how difficult it is or long it takes to find moments of peace. It feels odd to type this, but after all the cold glares and moments of rage, there is a level of sweetness that eventually creeps its way into the finale. Most importantly, the conclusion of the character arcs feels earned above all else. To opt for a finale that reveals some softer emotions, ones that frequently plague more mainstream films, is a bit of a risk, but Lafleur knows the material he is dealing with (he should, he wrote the script after all) and balances all the elements out quite nicely.

Having not seen his previous effort, Continental, I have a great urge to fill that blind spot at the earliest opportunity. Lafleur blends styles and genres adeptly, never losing focus of where the characters need to end up, nor getting caught up in the little quirks he creates. En Terrains connus is recommended viewing for those who are curious to explore modern Québec cinema.

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