Thursday, February 2, 2012

LE VENDEUR - Review by Greg Klymkiw - This stunning Quebecois kitchen sink drama is so raw and real, the pain evoked so acute, you'll be devastated by its quiet power while at the same time dazzled by its cinematic genius. The film had its World Premiere in Competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011 and was cited as one of Canada's Ten Best Films of the year in the Toronto International Film Festival's (TIFF) CTT. That it has not garnered one single nomination for a Genie Award is an utter disgrace! Don't miss it!

Le Vendeur (2011) dir. Sébastien Pilote
Starring: Gilbert Sicotte, Nathalie Cavezzali, Jérémy Tessier and Jean-François Boudreau


By Greg Klymkiw

It's a rare experience for me, but when it occurs, there's nothing like it. Sometimes I see a movie and after the final end-title credit has faded and the lights come up, I bolt from the cinema to be alone with my thoughts and to savour and extend the emotional response I had. Off the top of my head, other movies that made me feel this way were Au Revoir Les Enfants, Les Bons Debarras, The Straight Story, Ivan's Childhood and seeing the restored print of Nights of Cabiria. The experience, so indelibly etched into my soul, is as close to soaring as I'm ever likely to get.

And now, there's a new gun in town, pardner.

While its thematic concerns and narrative are both timeless and universal, and though it is set in a small factory town in Quebec, I was profoundly moved and deeply taken with just how Canadian Sébastien Pilote's astounding film Le Vendeur is. This staggeringly powerful, exquisitely-acted and beautifully written motion picture is easily the first genuine Quebecois heir apparent to the beautiful-yet-not-so-beautiful-loser genre of English Canadian cinema of the 60s and 70s (best exemplified by films like Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero and Zale Dalen's Skip Tracer).

The title character of Pilote's great film is ace car salesman Marcel Lévesque (Gilbert Sicotte). He lives in a small town on the brink of complete financial collapse - the primary industry has shut down production and locked out its workers and yet, while people are starving, losing everything, moving away and many local businesses shutting down forever, Marcel turns a blind eye to all this. He's not the undisputed Salesman of the month in the dealership for nothing - and not just one month, but EVERY month, for years on end.

Financial crisis be damned! There are cars on the lot and they need to be moved.

And they will be moved.

At any cost.

Marcel, you see, has nothing. With a healthy nest-egg and no financial commitments, he's at an age when most men would retire and enjoy life. For Marcel, life is selling cars. His late wife has been six feet under for a long time and his only real human connection is to his daughter Maryse (Nathalie Cavezzali), a hairdresser and single mother to Antoine (Jérémy Tessier). If it weren't for them, he'd have even more time to sell cars.

He is, however, in spite of this obsession, a devoted, loving and caring father and grandfather. He makes regular visits to his daughter's shop, attends local events with her, watches his grandson play hockey in the local arena whilst gently tut-tutting any suggestion from his only surviving blood relations that perhaps he should retire.

He is a friend to everyone in town, yet in reality, he has no friends. His effusive manner with all he meets is part of his ongoing schtick - he knows damn well that people will buy from someone they like.

And he must be liked to be successful.

His colleagues love him too. It's no matter to his fellow salesmen that he outsells them ten to one. He's a great guy and because he's a great guy they all believe his prowess and luck will rub off on all of them.

And then there are the locked-out workers at the factory he passes every morning on his way to the dealership. They stand in the frigid Quebec climate, snow piled up around them and warming themselves on the fires raging in steel drums as they keep vigil over their only hope for employment - their placards demanding fair treatment while the factory's fat-cats get bonuses and they potentially lose their jobs, benefits and pensions.

No matter to Marcel.

The unemployed need to buy huge, gas-guzzling American cars they can't afford as much as the next guy.

And he's just the man to make the sales. Marcel prides himself on remembering and knowing as many details about his customers (past, present and future). For those times he needs his memory jogged, he maintains a collegial and caring rapport with the guys who work in the service department. He plies them with daily cans of Coke from the pop machine and when he spies a familiar vehicle up on a hoist, he gets as much info as he needs from the mechanics about the owner of the ailing vehicle. He then consults his files to confirm he actually sold the car (and any salient details that can breed added familiarity), finds the "mark" in the waiting room, greets him as if they've known each other their whole life and slyly presents options available to trade-in the old and buy the new.

One such mark is the sad-sack François Paradis (Jean-François Boudreau), an out-of-work labourer locked out of the factory. This is a man who is unsure of where his family's next meal is coming from, but all Marcel knows is that a trade-in (at a loss to the customer), easy financing (at usurious interest rates) and cars on the lot that must be moved are the ultimate order of the day.

A sale is imminent.

So too is disaster.

Marcel's single minded need to sell knows no bounds. When this results in not just one, but two major tragic events, Marcel holds the ultimate key to his own survival - he can sell.

Pilote has crafted an astonishing screenplay - rife with details that are indelibly rooted in the realities and truths we all have experienced and/or recognize. As a director, he renders his screenplay with one jaw-droppingly poetic shot after another and yet, as exquisite as Pilote's eye is, the frame is rife with the reality of both beauty and despair.

And it is so Canadian: The endless snow, the frosty breath permeating the air, the crispness of the night, the sun and clear skies beating down on a frozen Earth, the constant parade of tractors clearing the streets, removing ice from the windshields, plugging and unplugging one's car to keep the block and interior heaters working overtime in sub-zero temperatures, the hot cups of java in the local diner, steaming hot chocolate in the hockey arena, the forays onto the frozen lakes to ice-fish and the ice-and-snow-packed highways that convey people from one solitary place to another - sometimes even as solitary as death.

Pilote's mise-en-scene has been rendered with the keen eye of cinematographer Michel La Veaux and I submit this might well be one of the best shot Canadian films in years. The compositions are often painterly, but most astounding is both the lighting of the interiors (starkly beautiful with a delicate grain and considerable detail) and the stunning exteriors wherein La Veaux paints with natural light. One of the shots I'll take to my grave is an interior of a snow-packed frigid car - that special beauty of darkness and light that we've all experienced at some point or another as we enter a vehicle that's yet to be swept free of the layers of frozen precipitation. This is great shooting and puts so much of the more expressionistically flashy Quebecois cinematography to shame.

Finally, the most Canadian image of all in Le Vendeur is the bloodied carcass of a moose who has strayed in the path of a car cascading along the black ice on a wilderness-enshrouded highway and the twisted wreckage of said vehicle that has collided with the huge, lumbering beast. I'd argue that anyone who has not seen this with their own eyes, experienced it themselves or, at least knows or knows of someone involved in such an accident can't possibly be Canadian - or, at the very least, lives a very sheltered life from one of the more characteristic experiences of Canadian life. (I've accidentally hit everything from rabbits to porcupines to coyotes to deer on the highways of northern Canada and a dear friend was invalided for life after hitting a moose. I can assure you, it's not a pretty sight.)

This is Quebec. This is Canada. And this is a film replete with so many aspects of indigenous familiarity that adds to the already tremendously moving narrative of Le Vendeur.

Yet amidst these details that speak to our culture - both English and French - there are the details of both the character and narrative which reflect realities as profound and universally recognizable as such works as Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman" or David Mamet's "Glengarry Glen Ross" or Joseph Heller's "Something Happened" or Saul Bellow's "Seize the Day". These are stories of men and families torn to shreds by the seeming freedom of capitalist society.

And so too is Pilote's Le Vendeur.

While watching the film, I could not get the aforementioned canon of English-Canadian loser cinema out of my head. For the townspeople who leave Le Vendeur's northern Quebec - especially the young men, I thought about Joey and Pete in Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, leaving their small Maritime town for new horizons, yet facing equally uncertain futures once away from the nest. I imagined the future of Marcel's hockey-playing small-town grandson and wondered, if fortune allowed him a full blossoming, would he too remain a big fish in a small pond like Rick "The Marshall" Dylan (Keir Dullea), the boozing, brawling, womanizing small potatoes hockey player from Peter Pearson's Paperback Hero? Worse yet, I wondered if Marcel himself was actually Joey or (more likely) Pete from Shebib's masterpiece if either had stayed in their small town and channelled the malevolent drive to succeed at any or all cost as imbued in the character of John the psychopathic debt collector in Zale Dalen's Skip Tracer?

Look, I doubt any of the aforementioned English Canadian films registered with Pilote when he wrote and directed Le Vendeur, but what's truly uncanny is just how connected and rooted to the English Canadian experience and aesthetic his film is. Perhaps the two solitudes are not as solitary as some would like to believe.

Like those films, Pilote has crafted what may well become a masterwork of CANADIAN cinema and one that is rooted in an indigenous cultural tradition no matter what side of the French-English fence one is on.

Le Vendeur is from Quebec.

And it is truly Canadian!

This is a good thing.

"Le Vendeur" is in limited release in English Canada via E-One Films. It begins a theatrical release in Toronto February 3 at the Alliance Atlantis Cumberland Cinema. It had its world premiere in competition at the Sundance Film Festival in January of 2011 and was wisely - VERY WISELY - cited by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) Canadian Top Ten (CTT). How it has not garnered one single Genie Award nomination is not only beyond me, but frankly, a disgrace. (Even the Quebec-based Jutra Awards have egg on their face for ignoring Pilote's direction, but citing the film in other categories - but the Jutras are regional and the Genies are national. They should know better.) In any event, do yourself a big favour and DO NOT MISS "LE VENDEUR" ON A BIG SCREEN WHERE IT MUST BE SEEN.

WATCH THIS TRAILER. DON'T MISS THIS MOVIE!!! (Note to Anglos: The trailer has English subtitles, but for some reason it tags the film with its English title THE SALESMAN, but when you look for the title in your movie listings in English Canada, it will most likely be listed as "Le Vendeur" - as it should be.) And again - DON'T MISS THIS MOVIE! SEE IT THEATRICALLY ON A BIG SCREEN WHERE IT MUST BE SEEN!

The film's official website can be found HERE