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Punk rock boy meets punk rock girl in the pleasingly rough-around-the-edges Montreal indie Fake Tattoos (Les faux tatouages). The fiction feature from up-and-coming Quebec director Pascal Plante strings together largely familiar notes that hit their target without fail and is, on the surface, a sweet summer-fling-type romance, though there’s a darker undertow churning just underneath that the talented director slowly teases out and that acts as an amplifier of the film’s already quite significant emotional resonance.
The writer-director-editor, who earlier made the docu-fiction hybrid The Porn Generation, here shows a deft hand with his young professional actors and a straightforward but never simplistic command of film language. The Canuck indie has played at a few local festivals and picked up the Best Canadian Feature accolade at the Festival du Nouveau Cinema in Montreal last fall. It makes its international bow with a Slamdance-Berlin twofer that should lead to wider visibility on the festival circuit, while locally, this March release could, with the right outreach, became a rare art house buzz title for the generation it so accurately portrays.
On the balmy summer night he celebrates his 18th birthday, Theo (Anthony Therrien) — black band T-shirt, courageous attempt at facial hair and dark, curly locks a la Slash — stops at a convenience store to buy some cheap beers before going to a rock concert. Even before it’s obvious he’s doing all this by himself rather than with a group of friends, it’s clear from his frown, permanently averted eyes and shifty demeanor that he’s a bit of a loner and an introvert.
After the concert, he’s in line to buy a soft drink at a diner, where he’s chatted up by the girl behind him, who comments on the fake tattoo on his arm. Stringy blond hair with pink tips, more than one bracelet on her left wrist, fiercely independent but not unkind, Mag (Rose-Marie Perreault) is clearly an intriguing proposition for the shy Theo, who initially seems a bit annoyed by the presence of this unplanned chatterbox but who’s gradually won over by her personality.
Plante gives the actors a lot of room from the get-go, framing his odd couple in long takes and immediately privileging two-shots that visually suggest their complicity even before they realize themselves that they might be compatible. But by the time they end up sleeping together at her place, it doesn’t come as a surprise so much as a confirmation these two have somehow, through the random luck of the universe, really just clicked.
Like a slightly longer — and decidedly more heterosexual — version of Andrew Haigh’s Weekend, Plante, who also wrote the screenplay, puts the nascent emotional connection of the clearly sexually compatible couple under pressure by introducing a deadline of sorts, as it is revealed that Theo will soon be moving in with his older sister (Lysandre Nadeau), who lives four hours away in a small provincial town. “Do you still want to see me?” Mag asks when he’s brought himself to tell her the next morning, to which he replies in the affirmative with a hungry kiss that’s simultaneously affectionate and a little desperate. At least a kiss will stop her from asking further questions about his unexplained departure.
(Spoilers in this paragraph only.) It is through small gestures such as these that Plante starts to tease out the darker undercurrent of the material, as it slowly emerges that Theo doesn’t really want to move away but is forced to do so and that alcohol — when he was still a minor! — and an accident might have something to do with it. The filmmaker handles this material skillfully, never revealing too much but slowly constructing a bigger background picture that helps explain why a seemingly normal 18-year-old who’s perfectly capable of wooing a young woman might prefer to celebrate his birthday by himself.
The film is not a mystery, so the revelation of what happened is never the goal (indeed, Plante never lifts the veil 100 percent). Instead, the director uses the slow build-up of the backstory to construct a fuller and more complex picture of his protagonist as the increasingly smiling and lovely Theo hurtles toward his date of departure, a finite point in the near future that functions as a reminder of his dark past. The structure and the emotional impact of Fake Tattoos is thus more intricate and greater than what its initial boy-meets-girl template might suggest, whipping its contrasting emotional curves into a complex whole.
Plante has a good eye for both the details of contemporary courtship — the Facebook stalking; the YouTube-videos-in-bed ritual; the use of an iPhone’s speakerphone option — and the timeless awkwardness of hookups, like when Theo can’t manage to get Mag out of her skinny pants or unhook her bra. The film also feels very contemporary in the way it de-dramatizes what would have been possible sources of conflict not that long ago, with the moment in which Mag’s mother walks in on the couple in bed, for example, not a tragedy but just awkward in a cute way without being judgmental. One-night stands are no big deal; what might be a bigger deal is what Theo was responsible for in the past.
This blend of contemporary sensibility and nuance and the absence of major obstacles beyond the fixed time limit allow the past tragedy to resonate more clearly even if it is barely sketched out; Theo’s biggest hurdle is his own sense of what he thinks he deserves in the aftermath of what happened. This is never clearer than in an unexpectedly piercing moment when Theo goes to visit a peer (Remi Goulet). Their actions and conversation seem innocent enough, but it’s all about what’s not being said. Neither young man likes to talk about his feelings or the past, there are no apologies and no forgiveness is granted. But the fact they manage to shoot some hoops and simply make small talk implies all that and more.
Under Plante’s direction, Therrien, the lead from Corbo, and Perreault, also in Denys Arcand’s upcoming Le Triomphe de l’argent, give unaffected, naturalistic performances and have great chemistry. If the modest but precisely made film is well-judged on many fronts, it is the actors that really make the material come alive.
Besides a French-language Daniel Belanger composition capably performed by the actors, the soundtrack is filled with material from North American acts such as Pale Lips and Against Me!
Production companies: Bal Masque Productions, Nemesis Films
Cast: Anthony Therrien, Rose-Marie Perreault, Lysandre Nadeau, Brigitte Poupart, Nicole-Sylvie Lagarde, Leona Rousseau, Remi Goulet
Writer-Director: Pascal Plante
Producers: Katerine Lefrancois
Executive producer: Caroline Gaudette
Director of photography: Vincent Allard
Production designer: Samuel B. Cloutier
Costume designer: Alexandra Begin
Editor: Pascal Plante
Music: Dominique Plante
Venue: Slamdance Film Festival
In French, English
No rating, 87 minutes