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‘Le Torrent’ Movie Review – is indeed a torrent of brilliant imagery, if slowly paced

‘Le Torrent’ Movie Review – is indeed a torrent of brilliant imagery, if slowly paced

 

Le Torrent

Directed by Simon Lavoie

Written by

Canada, 2012

One of the worst kept secrets among Canadian film fans and buffs is the epic rise in quality and recognition of Québec’s output. Even though the province has long been a dependable source of solid films, the past ten to twelve years have seen it provide some of the country’s vey best cinematic experiences, which has led to no less than three separate occasions since 2003 when a Québec film was nominated for Best Foreign Language Picture at the Academy Awards, with 1 win in fact (The Barbarian Invasions in 2003). The word ‘auteurship’ is, quite honestly, an apt term to use when discussion La Belle Province’s directors, several of whom are, without the shadow of a doubt, the best Canada has to offer the film world. Simon Lavoie has not risen to the heights of the Arcand’s and the Villeneuve’s, although his latest endeavour, Le Torrent,  based on a classic book by Anne Hébert, just might give him that extra lift he needs.

Le Torrent takes viewer back to the early 20th century in the province’s very remote, very sealed off countryside, where religion, Catholicism in particular, dominates virtually all facets of life and not always in the healthiest ways. François is a young boy living with his mother (Dominique Quesnel) who raises him with brutish authority, home schooling him for the majority of his childhood, up until the lad’s early teenage years. Her devotion to the Lord is very much inspired by the Old Testament version of the good book. Fear god, fear being bad, fear evil, fear sin, even if that requires literally beating it out of one’s son.  François near hermit-like existence has him longing for the company of others, although when the day he gets to leave his mother’s home finally arrives, it is under less than ideal circumstances, as he spends his teens at a prep school administered by priests. He returns home in his early adulthood (at that point played by Victor Andrés Trelles) to his mother, who insists that he enrol in religious studies to become a priest himself, a goal François rejects outright. His mother, incapable of holding in her rage, beats him senselessly over the head, thus rendering him deaf. François’s existence sees a small lure of hope the day he stumbles upon a young, extremely beautiful native woman in the woods, Amica (Laurence Leboeuf), with whom he strikes a difficult if uniquely necessary bond.

The film had its premiere at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma this past week, and the crowd’s reaction when the credits began to roll was slightly odd. For a brief moment, there was nothing but silence in the room as the soundtrack aired nothing but the rustling of water down a river. It was only thirty seconds or so later when some people began to applaud, which was obviously the polite thing to do considering that the director himself and several cast members were in the audience.  Even then, it was not an energetic clap, but rather one an audience will award the filmmakers out of respect. Now, whether that occurred because the majority of the viewers actually did not enjoy the film or because they were in a trance after Lavoie’s two and a half hour meditative film on depression, strained mother-son relationships and the oppressive hold Catholicism had on the province of Québec for so long for far too long is anybody guess.

Nevertheless, the second possibility, that the people watching the film might have required a minute or two to ostensibly ‘snap out of’ a hypnotic state genuinely seems plausible. To risk a lofty comparison, it could be argued that Simon Lavoie’s directorial style in his most recent film is as Malickian as a director ever has been in Québec cinema. The movie moves along at its own, deliberate pace. The film is equipped for the most part with a very unique and sensitive musical score that gently highlights the more resonant emotional beats, there are several stretches of the running time when the protagonist does not speak in the world of the film but rather directly to the audience through his internal thought process and, yes, his desires and fears are conveyed through hushed tones, very like in Malick’s The Thin Red Line and Tree of Life. To top it off, the film is exquisitely shot, there are simply no two ways about it. Le Torrent might be one of the most handsome looking pictures of the year, whether from Canada or anywhere in the world. The cinematography is top notch, with more than a handful of shots displaying clear cut expertise in lighting, shadowing and a mastery of finding the perfect camera angle for a shot, all of which creates the perfect mood. It goes without saying that the film’s overall tone is dark. The story involves characters behaving very oppressively towards one another, with unfair power relations frequently dictating how one person will act and react towards another. As a cinematic ‘experience’ in the most literal sense, with sights and sounds (special mention to the sound design as well, which is equally rock solid) Le Torrent is aces.

The willingness of an audience member to fully engage with the film will therefore rest on his or her propensity to either be whisked away purely by cinema’s purest qualities (images and sound) or their requirement of a sound story with strong pacing. It is in the latter category that, just perhaps, Simon Lavoie struggles with to an extent. It does not seem completely necessary for Le Torrent to need over two hours to develop François’ sad tale. There is nothing wrong with long films per say, yet this particular story feels as though it could easily have been told in 90 to 120 minutes, not 150. It feels cheap to use the typical, half-hearted argument that the director ‘could have used an editor,’ yet this is one case where it is very tempting to argue just that. As brilliant as the film looks, as impressive as it sounds, and as committed as its cast is, with special mention towards Dominique Quesnel (who could probably instill the fear of god in just about anybody), the film does ask some patience out of its viewers. Part of the reason why the film uses up more time than what otherwise could have been the case might have to do with the fact that several plot points are shared in non-chronological order, with hints and snippets of events in François’ life revealed briefly early on, only for the movie to jump back and forth constantly in order to slowly, gradually, explain them by the end. One wonders if, had Simon Lavoie opted to edit the story in the regular chronological order, his film would be clicked along at a brisker, more assured pace.  

Le Torrent is a brilliantly packaged film, make no mistake about it. Despite that, it will be a hard sell for audiences, mostly for its pacing, which is on the sluggish end of the spectrum, although this being one case where that does not exactly help the movie in question.

-Edgar Chaput

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