‘Leolo’ is a tender, dirty poem

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Directed by Jean-Claude Lauzon
Canada, 1992

Jean-Claude Lauzon’s semi-autobiographical Léolo is not for the squeamish. This isn’t horror, blood and guts stuff. It’s a film with a smell and a texture.

Leo Lauzon (Mazime Collin) lives in a crowded Montreal apartment with his largely insane family, but spends most of his time in his imagination as the Sicilian Leolo Lozone, bizarrely conceived by a tomato, and entirely in awe of the world around him.

Léolo is obsessed with body parts and secretions. There’s an emphasis on liquids, fecal matter, and colossus bodies. Characters eat, things squish and slide. It’s a mélange that sometimes verges on the uncomfortable, but is always tangible – it has the feeling of concrete memory, not the stuff of distant nostalgia.

One bit of Léolo’s voiceover sums the film up nicely: “I was always divided by me desire to vomit and my desire to jerk off.” That this quote occurs at a moment of hilarity – the young boy surreptitiously watching his object-of-desire bathe his grandfather while he noisily masturbates with a scuba mask on – adds to the audience’s own divide. The scene is at once repulsive and hilarious.

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The second half of Léolo shifts. If the beginning is a gross-out version of a modern Jean-Pierre Jeunet film, then the last act is gentler, Louis Malle-like. It feels somehow cleaner, not only in its writing and focus (this last act has direction and vignettes with real arcs and outcomes), but also in a literal sense, as though the grime of childhood has been washed away in favor of fondness and wistfulness. It’s a film that is certainly in awe of Federico Fellini’s great Amarcord.

The film is also insightful. When Leo’s older brother Fernand (Yves Montmarquette), now older and with a bodybuilder’s physique is confronted by the same bully who broke his nose years ago, the stronger Fernand breaks down in tears, still unable to defend himself. It’s childhood PTSD and a fine example of the depth of the scars of youth.

For a film that does the infamous scene from American Pie seven years prior (and with a much slimier food), that features toenail eating, and lots and lots of feces, Léolo is in the end strangely comforting and sweet. The voiceover-heavy film, with an old man’s voice talking in the first person for a little boy, feels like a tender, dirty poem.

– Neal Dhand

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