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In an interview included in the press materials for Boris Without Beatrice, writer-director Denis Cote expresses his hope that the central character’s required soul-searching will be seen as a universal theme, not confined to any particular social class. But it’s hard to interpret this painfully mannered fable as anything but a simplistic allegory for the toll of lofty entitlement, wealth and complacency.
Cote’s films can be haunting oddities, like his near-wordless documentary reflection on the human fascination with animals in captivity, Bestiaire. Or they can be rich in deadpan humor and genre subversion, like his last Berlin competition entry, Vic + Flo Saw a Bear, which swerved from bucolic anti-melodrama into grotesque tragicomedy. The director’s new feature is made with his customary stylistic rigor, and with his usual economy in conveying meaning via arresting images. But Cote has never shown much interest in creating empathetic characters, which makes this intimate account of one man’s uneasy introspection an alienating chore.
The setup draws you in at first. An immaculately dressed middle-aged Quebec businessman with a piercing gaze, a head like a bullet and a rangy but still powerful-looking frame, Boris Malinovsky (James Hyndman) stands in a grassy field awaiting the arrival of a helicopter. (The chopper’s occupant is revealed mid-film.) Cut to a luxury clothing store where he purchases an armful of expensive shirts and then curtly puts the ingratiating cashier in her place as she asks for the standard customer data. It’s a strong scene, bracing in its chilly nastiness, and it establishes Boris as a figure of contemptuous privilege, ready to be taken down a peg or two.
But the familiar roads of comeuppance, moral awakening and redemption are not Cote’s itinerary. Instead, he invokes Greek tragedy with a ponderous hand to force Boris to take a long hard look at himself and acknowledge the possibility that he might indeed be a bad person.
The root of his steadily amplified anxiety is the crippling depression of his wife, Beatrice (Simone Elise-Gerard), a senior minister in the Canadian government, taking a leave of absence. Placing another executive in charge of his factory operations, Boris takes time off to be with his silent, bedridden wife amid the lush green seclusion of their country house. She is looked after there by Klara (Isolda Dychauk), a young care worker, while Boris seeks comfort, or at least diversion, in an affair with his employee Helga (Dounia Sichov). His daughter, Justine (Laetitia Isambert-Denis), is a petulant social justice warrior, ashamed of her right-wing industrialist father and unsympathetic about her stepmother’s melancholia.
Boris is a cold, unpleasant man, but flashes of happy times with Beatrice — flooded with light and shot in limber contrast to the composed frames, controlled movement and muted colors of the main action — suggest that his love for his wife is sincere.
The turning point comes when he receives an enigmatic summons in the mail to go to a nearby quarry one night and meet a stranger who offers to help. That unnamed man is played by Denis Lavant, the fetish actor from Leos Carax’s films, in an arch turn as an all-seeing oracle who identifies himself as both a judge and a friend.
At first, Boris continues his unrepentant behavior, beginning a sexual relationship with Klara while unceremoniously dumping Helga. He also gives a frosty welcome to the solicitous Prime Minister (Canadian radical queer filmmaker Bruce LaBruce in an inside-joke casting choice) and is openly hostile toward the government-appointed psychiatrist. But gradually, the voice of the stranger convinces Boris that his arrogance has made Beatrice’s condition worse. He may even be the cause of it.
As Boris starts reaching out — to Justine and to his emotionally remote mother (Louise Laprade), who responds with blunt evasiveness to the question of whether she loves him — the film paradoxically becomes more and more distancing. It also feels increasingly stagy. The flickers of life in catatonic Beatrice carry little emotional weight, even when she bears silent witness to an ugly clash between Helga and Klara.
By the time Lavant’s stranger reappears as part of a disquieting family gathering and begins recapping the myth of Tantalus, who angered the gods and got slapped with the punishment of eternal frustration, the central drama has become far too arcane and affected to be involving. Cote even piles on more tiresome Greek references by having Justine’s simpering gay housemates waft around in their underwear, acting out the roles of Tantalus’ descendants, Orestes and Electra, as they plot to take back the ancestral home. That’s one of the film’s few overt attempts at humor, and it grates more than amuses.
Whatever claims he makes to thematic universality, Cote appears to be illustrating the ways in which the vanity and pride that often come with ostentatious wealth go mostly unchecked today. But the trite hint of optimism in the ambiguous conclusion shows that self-doubt can still be a powerful and positive influence.
The subdued intensity of Hyndman’s performance and the cool elegance of the visuals ensure at least mild engagement for a while, even if the jagged bursts of electronic music provide plenty of encouragement to tune out. But this is a laborious film that dulls the human drama at its core. Rather than pulling you into the protagonist’s gradual acquaintance with his unfamiliar conscience, it shuts you out, leaving you bored and indifferent.
Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)
Production companies: Metafilms
Cast: James Hyndman, Simone Elise-Gerard, Denis Lavant, Isolda Dychauk, Dounia Sichov, Laetitia Isambert-Denis, Louise Laprade, Bruce LaBruce
Director-screenwriter: Denis Cote
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant
Executive producer: Michel Merkt
Director of photography: Jessica Lee Gagne
Production designer: Louisa Schabas
Costume designer: Caroline Bodson
Music: Ghislain Poirier
Editor: Nicolas Roy
Sales: Films Boutique
Not rated, 93 minutes
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