Making a movie about our age’s self(ie)-obsessed culture that riffs on the myth of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in the water, seems like quite an obvious move. But only queer Canadian iconoclast Bruce LaBruce (Hustler White, L.A. Zombie) would filter this story through the lens of 1970s cult movies and then throw in Sapphic lovers who have gone off the grid; a young monk who turns out to be a cigarette-smoking, volleyball-averse lookalike of the protagonist; and an abusive gay priest obsessed with Saint Sebastian.
All these things and more — many more — are the ingredients of Saint-Narcisse, the director’s return to more mainstream fiction after 2018’s It is Not the Pornographer That is Perverse…, a jocular tetraptych he made for gay porn studio Cockyboys.
Saint-Narcisse was the closing film of the Giornate degli autori section at the Venice Film Festival and also screens in the Industry Selects strand at TIFF. LaBruce manages the difficult balancing act of retaining the anarchic, B-movie-influenced aesthetic of his previous features that his cult following expects while achieving a new level of finesse in terms of how everything has been put together. This unusual item should pique the interest of genre distributors not afraid of a marketing challenge.
In a typically provocative gesture, the first thing we see of our twentysomething protagonist, Dominic (striking newcomer Felix-Antoine Duval), is his crotch in tight black jeans. He’s at a laundromat on a nondescript evening in 1972 Quebec while the Poppy Family’s “Where Evil Grows” plays in the background. After fishing a bra out of the drier, Dominic starts talking with the only other customer there, a beautiful young woman to whom he apologetically suggests the item is his grandma’s. It’s not clear whether she’s fully convinced but she’s certainly intrigued. Not a minute later, the couple are providing some extra shaking for the washing machines, going at it like ravenous rabbits in full view of the windows onto the street, where a group of people starts gathering to look at the neon-lit spectacle within.
It is an eye-popping opening sequence that immediately grabs your attention and not only because it has been shot (by cinematographer Michel LaVeaux) and decked out (by production designer Alex Hercule Desjardins) with a great eye for detail and atmosphere. The setting of course recalls two queer highlights of the 1980s: Stephen Frears’ groundbreaking cross-cultural gay romance My Beautiful Laundrette, with a young Daniel Day-Lewis, and the iconic “Laundrette” Levi’s ad with Nick Kamen that become something of a homoerotic hallmark. However, LaBruce has more clearly put his queer spin on the commercial by introducing the element of the grandmotherly undergarment as the item that sparks the youngsters’ get-together. The music choice specifically suggests the time — it was a hit in 1971 — and place, as the Poppy Family were Canadian, with the song’s title suggesting something ominous might be coming.
The kicker comes at the end of the scene — a glimpse into Dominic’s confused state of mind, as he thinks he might have seen, for a split second, someone who looks suspiciously like him in the crowd of curious onlookers. Too self-obsessed? An out-of-body experience? An evil twin? All of the above?
The opening sequence will immediately suck easily excited viewers in. But whereas sex was often mainly titillating or provocative in the director’s previous films — not that there isn’t an audience for that, too — in Saint-Narcisse, LaBruce simultaneously manages to foreshadow his major themes and suggest something about his main character’s inner state. The filmmaking isn’t only ravishing to look; the writing and narrative construction have become a little more sophisticated, too.
The film proper kicks off with a funny moment when Dominic arrives home and it is revealed he does actually live with his French-speaking grandmother (Angele Coutu). She is the starting point for a series of revelations about Dominic’s family that leads him to the Quebec countryside, where he meets two women (earthy Tania Kontoyanni and Alexandra Petrachuk, radiant) who are not only lovers but a key to unraveling Dom’s family history.
Dominic also meets another attractive youngster, Daniel, who looks just like him (and is played by Duval and some body doubles). He’s tied up in the family tree, too, though he’s had a very different upbringing, having grown up in a monastery run by Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis, creepily hollow-eyed), who is unhealthily obsessed with both Saint Sebastian and the angelic-looking Daniel.
As the title suggests, Dominic is self-obsessed and there’s a funny gag early on, in which he keeps taking “selfies” — but with his Polaroid camera. Though the film is entirely set in 1972, it’s the smart use of mythological and religious allusions as well as more recent props like the photo camera that draws a line from Greek mythology all the way to the present without breaking the early 1970s illusion. Self-obsession has always been there, the film seems to suggest, and to an extent it’s only normal that people want to know who they are and where they come from. But how much obsession with oneself is too much? Should there be boundaries? The film’s final sequence, which replaces a familiar Christian image with a similar but simultaneously radically queer one, offers some ideas for possible answers.
It has to be noted that the Canadian rebel director can’t quite maintain the initial level of exuberance for the entire running time. A more streamlined edit would have helped, especially in the second half, where there are some pacing issues and it feels like LaBruce wants to do too much but ends up not committing quite enough for all his ideas to be fully developed.
That said, LaBruce and editor Hubert Hayaud have also given the film an impressively loose-limbed, 1970s-feeling montage style, which liberally cuts back and forth between places and timelines without ever losing the viewer. It adds an extra layer of dynamism and airiness that’s very welcome.
Overall, Saint-Narcisse is a wild ride that’s enjoyable in all its B-movie glory — the production design that’s just a little too kitschy, the dialogue that’s just a tad too ripe — while also titillating the intellect.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Giornate degli autori)
Production companies: 1976 Productions, Six Island Productions
Cast: Felix-Antoine Duval, Tania Kontoyanni, Alexandra Petrachuk, Andreas Apergis
Director: Bruce LaBruce
Screenplay: Martin Girard, Bruce LaBruce
Producers: Nicolas Comeau, Paul Scherzer
Cinematography: Michel LaVeaux
Production design: Alex Hercule Desjardins
Costume design: Valérie Gagnon-Hamel
Editing: Hubert Hayaud
Music: Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux
Sales: Best Friend Forever
In English, Quebec French
No rating, 101 minutes