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Twisted / Tormented / Tragic: Two Movies from Canada

Thomas Britt
From Congorama

‘Congorama’ and ‘A Wind from Wyoming’ are wildly different in style and success in this two-film collection.

Twisted / Tormented / Tragic: Two Movies from Canada

Director: #233; Forcier
Cast: Olivier Gourmet, François Cluzet
Distributor: Facets
MPAA rating: Unrated
Display Artist: Philippe Falardeau, André Forcier
First date: 2006
US DVD Release Date: 2009-02-24

A film that depends on coincidence as a plot device does so at its own risk. A common critical response is that coincidence is a lazy resort for writers unable to tie up story threads in a more plausible manner. However, some movies, such as Magnolia and I Heart Huckabees have dedicated fans that respond enthusiastically to the scripts' straightforward embrace of coincidence.

It’s debatable whether one could formulate the best or strongest use of coincidence, but perhaps it’s safe to declare that chance and serendipity will stretch credibility to a lesser extent if their function is compatible with the rest of the film's formal system. After all, films do not claim to be real life, and if happenstance forms part of an otherwise tight dramatic structure, then so be it. Conversely, if coincidence and serendipity are used merely as a shortcut to resolution, something starts to stink.

Philippe Falardeau's Congorama, one of two features in this set from Facets, utilizes many chance happenings, some of which are more credible than others. However, the film succeeds because the vagaries of the script are grounded in a worthy dramatic situation about sons seeking fathers and fathers reaching out to sons.

Olivier Gourmet is unsuccessful Belgian inventor Michel, who lives under the shadow of his father Hervé, a writer. When Michel learns he is adopted, he travels to his birthplace (Québec) in search of his biological parents. Michel is not a particularly ambitious man, but a chance encounter on his miserable trip provides him with an opportunity to connect with destiny rather than to continue simply passing through life.

Gourmet -- so effective in the naturalistic social dramas of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne -- uses his hallmark unselfconscious manner here, with an added touch of physical comedy that might surprise some viewers. This isn't slapstick by any means, but his body language is that of an insecure, hapless man facing down middle-aged irrelevance, and Gourmet finds a dark humor in that struggle.

His cool foil Louis, played by Paul Ahmarani, is a diamond grader who drives an electric car that represents his missing father's legacy. When a priest introduces Michel to Louis, the two men begin to bond, but their time together is cut short when an Emu intervenes.

Almost halfway through the film, Congorama doubles back in order to repeat scenes from different narrative and visual perspectives. The device works because Louis is just as intriguing a protagonist as Michel, and the mysteries of his character run parallel to the past Michel is trying to recover. True to the film's concern with fate and memory, one repeated moment of intersection is a fairly direct homage to La Jetée.

Falardeau gets a lot of mileage out of contrasting, flawed characters, and he stages their meetings and reunions in an understated way that nonetheless gains significance as the connections between them are revealed. Cinematographer André Turpin meaningfully frames the locations, from the countryside of Saint-Cécile to the industrial landscape of Liège, as extensions of the characters' psychologies. On the whole, Congorama is a thoughtful modern fairy tale about commerce, family, and masculinity that would form a timely double feature with Laurent Cantet's Time Out.

Shifting away from fathers and sons to mothers and daughters, the second film in this set -- André Forcier's A Wind from Wyoming -- is a mess of a comedy that throws many styles at the screen, but very little sticks. At the film's core is a middle-aged couple Lizette (France Castel) and Marcel (Michel Côté), and their two daughters Lea (Sarah-Jeanne Salvy) and Manon (Céline Bonnier). Lea has lost her lover, boxer Reo (Martin Randez), to her mother, and Marcel hopes to defeat Reo with his own contender Johnny (Jean-Marie Lapointe). As potential suitors for both daughters, hypnotist Albert (Marc Messier) and writer Chester (François Cluzet) crowd the film's comic soap-operatic milieu.

The entire film has a garish look, featuring dominant primary colors and neon lights in its seedy settings of boxing gyms and dive bars. Dissolves to a red screen are supposed to signify something, but the only literal connection is to protagonist Lea, whose signature color is red. There are moments in the film when the production design and left-field performances bring to mind Twin Peaks or Wild at Heart, but this film is all empty style, sharing none of David Lynch's Manichean mission.

A Wind from Wyoming has been called a satire, and if that is the case then it is a particularly cruel one. Women's passions are in the crosshairs here, and not one of the female characters escapes unscathed. The film would have us believe that the boxer, the hypnotist and the writer are all so irresistible that Lizette and her daughters would throw caution to the wind and knowingly destroy each other (and Marcel) just to bed them.

Reo is an especially ridiculous character, as it is his body alone that the women covet. Neither the film nor the characters within it pretend that Reo amounts to anything other than a fine physical specimen. And while Albert and Chester are not absurd masculine ideals, their function as romantic leads is complicated by the fact that they sexually and physically abuse the women of the film, who continue to want them. The actors' dedication to the material is responsible for any portion of the film that works. François Cluzet is especially effective, and his boxing ring tryst with Manon comes close to the hilarity of Sven Unterwaldt's similar, but far superior Wie die Karnickel.

Perhaps in Pedro Almodóvar's hands, this would-be sex comedy would explore the territory between reckless passion and earnest amorous longing. After all, Almodóvar achieves this with almost every film, and he makes it look easy. But Forcier is not as capable, and A Wind from Wyoming is atonal, ugly, and decidedly unromantic.

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