Thursday 14 January 2010

Léolo (1992)

“Because I dream, I am not …”

I’ve wanted to see the French-Canadian film Léolo (1992), by Jean-Claude Lauzon, for many years, long before any academic interest or involvement in the world of CanStudies. And, well… sometimes long-anticipated events can end up being a bit disappointing. There were several aspects of the film that I liked and admired very much, but I found its scatological obsessions - too many scenes set in the bathroom - hard to take, and when I heard myself groaning in revulsion at its most notorious sequence (it involves a group of adolescent boys and a distressed cat) I had to face the fact that I wasn’t really having a very good time. Still, this distinctive film has its fascination, and for every moment of repulsion, it offers one of tenderness and lyricism that (just about) keeps you on board.

In some ways, Lauzon’s film feels like the missing link between Lasse Hallstrom’s My Life As A Dog (1985) and Todd Solondz’s Happiness (1998), and elements of it seem to have influenced Jean-Marc Vallee’s more amenable C.R.A.Z.Y (2005), another French-Canadian family drama with a strong sense of time and place. Lauzon's protagonist, 13-year-old Leo (Maxime Collin), lives in an East Montreal tenement with a family plagued by eccentricity and downright insanity: a father obsessed by toilet-training and bowel movements; a relentlessly body-building brother; a fat sister (straight out of John Waters) who hoards horseflies and other critters in the basement; a grandfather who gets sexual kicks from having his toenails bitten off.

Seeking escape from this bunch (who move with disturbing fluidity betweeen the apartment and the local mental hospital), Leo fantasises, creating a new identity for himself as "Léolo," whose conception (depicted in a Tin Drum-ish early sequence) came about following his mother’s encounter with a tomato that had been masturbated over by an Italian farmer (!). Italy is on our protagonist's mind for another reason: it’s the birth-place of his neighbour Bianca, the subject of many of Leo’s imaginings and desires.

It is as a portrait of adolescent imagination - and of the power of language and words to help transcend and transform - that Léolo is at its strongest. Leo's escape into writing and reading - “All I ask of a book is that it gives me courage and strength,” he says - is touchingly rendered, and it crystallises around his engagement with Québecois author Réjean Ducharme’s classic novel The Swallower Swallowed (1966), a quotation from which - “Because I dream, I am not…” - provides the film’s insistent, double-edged refrain. Developing these issues, Lauzon introduces a sympathetic adult figure into the film, a man styled "the Word Tamer" (Pierre Bourgault), who moves in and out of Leo's experiences, collecting his writings, and finally memorialising him, when our young hero's fate proves too difficult to escape after all.

Lauzon (whose second -and final - feature this was; he died in 1997) has an eye for detail and creates a distinctive mood, helped by a soundtrack that encompasses Thomas Tallis, Tom Waits and Lorenna McKennett, but his predilection for crudity and shock-value distanced me from the movie. Worse, there’s also strong strain of sentimentality surging under the film’s grotesquery: it’s evident in its portrait of the large, loving mother; in Leo’s attachment to Bianca (“my only love”); and, ultimately, in the presentation of Leo himself. But while Lauzon's commitment to the grotesque makes Léolo a more uncomfortable film to watch (and a harder one to like) than it might have been, for the strong of stomach, it's a movie that deserves at least one viewing.

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