'All You Can Eat Buddha': Film Review

All You Can Eat Buddha - STILL 1 - TIFF PUBLICITY - H 2017
Courtesy of TIFF
But can you digest it all?

The feature fiction debut from French-Canadian cinematographer-turned-director Ian Lagarde was shot in Cuba and stars French actor Ludovic Berthillot ('The King of Escape').

The French-Canadian film All You Can Eat Buddha (All You Can Eat Bouddha), shot in Cuba, will do nothing to dispel the notion that there’s something slightly outlandish about all-inclusive holiday resorts. Quite the contrary, as the film morphs from something oddball but nonetheless semi-realistic into a disquietingly strange tale featuring a talking octopus and a revolution that might be at once political and intestinal.

This unclassifiable debut from Montreal-based filmmaker Ian Lagarde, who worked as a cinematographer on visually delightful features such as Denis Cote’s Vick and Flo Saw a Bear and Ryan McKenna’s Sabali, seduces here too with numerous surface pleasures, though it is harder to pin down what exactly it is trying to say. All You Can Eat premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in the Discovery program and should find more time under the sun at other festivals and at cinematheques with a taste for eccentric new talent, though for any type of traditional commercial release this will be a tough sell. It is screening this week at the Mumbai Film Festival. 

Mike (French actor Ludovic Berthillot, from Alain Guiraudie’s The King of Escape) is a corpulent diabetic visiting an unnamed island nation where they speak Spanish. He’s welcomed to the El Palacio resort by the mustachioed Latin cliché that is Valentino (Sylvio Arriol, perfection), who likes to practice his generic welcome speech in French before the shuttle from the airport starts spitting out guests. Among them is Mike, who travels alone and doesn’t do much else besides walk around the resort, stoically take in the evening entertainment and eating at the restaurant three times a day. But whatever his single facial expression might lead one to believe, clearly the tubby tourist is enjoying himself, as he decides to prolong his stay indefinitely.

Besides Valentino, there’s also the chambermaid, Esmeralda (Yaite Ruiz, maternal), who keeps an eye out for Mike’s well-being. The French-Canadian resort entertainer, Jean-Pierre Villeneuve (David La Haye, tragically hilarious), who looks like a tropical hipster and who’s amusingly rebaptized “J.P. Newtown” for the English-speaking guests, tries to do the same but with less success, as Mike isn’t much into his overly exuberant salsa lessons.

The early going illustrates Mike’s daily routine at the resort, which is slightly odd — and therefore frequently chuckle-worthy — but not exactly out of the ordinary. But things start to shift into something much less realistic when an impressively sized octopus washes up on the beach and Mike untangles it from a fishing-net and helps it back into the water. The tentacled entity then thanks him and explains in Spanish (voiced by Ruiz) that their destinies are linked. Not much later, Mike manages to perform a minor miracle when he gets an angelic girl with an eating disorder to eat again by whispering something into her ear. Her Anglophone father (Richard Jutras, enthusiastic) is over the moon, assuring Mike he’ll not only never forget him but will tell everyone about the extraordinary thing he accomplished.

Even before this clear turning point, Lagarde has already subtly manipulated the images, sounds, edits and music cues to slowly immerse the viewer into something akin to a tropical dreamscape. This helps to make the rather surreal goings-on in the film’s second half feel less unexpected, as they follow a kind of dream-like logic. The octopus' tentacles even show up in Mike’s bed, unexpectedly linking the film to Amat Escalante’s pansexual genre hybrid The Untamed from last year. 

The title already implies that eating is a major part of the story, with Mike consuming plates and plates of food at each sitting and his “miracle” also related to food consumption. Even when the resort empties out as a “change of administration” (read: a political revolution) seems to be coming, Mike remains, looking for things to eat in the now-empty dining hall that slowly starts to be covered in mould and tropical plants. Even Mike himself, who has stopped taking his insulin shots, turns from sunburned to gangrenous, suggesting his body is going through its own kind of upheaval that parallels what may be happening on the island.

The finale aims for a kind of nirvana-like state that feels unearned, mainly because the meaning of the increasingly surreal events in the film’s second half remains quite oblique. Similarly, Lagarde’s socio-political parallels aren’t specific enough to offer anything but quite superficial commentary on the co-existence of mass tourism and politically dubious regimes in paradisiacal places. But Berthillot is the kind of performer who does a lot while seemingly doing nothing at all, which makes the semi-inscrutable Mike nonetheless never less than fascinating to watch. And there’s no denying that Lagarde has a voice as a filmmaker that’s worth developing.

Production company: Voyelle Films
Cast: Ludovic Berthillot, Sylvio Arriola, Yaite Ruiz, David La Haye, Alexander Guerrero, Richard Jutras
Writer-Director: Ian Lagarde
Producers: Gabrielle Tougas-Frechette, Menaic Raoul
Directors of photography: Ian Lagarde, John Londono
Production designer: Joelle Pelloquin
Costume designer: Gabrielle Tougas-Frechette
Editor: Mathieu Grondin
Sales: Stray Dogs
Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Discovery)

In French, Spanish
No rating, 84 minutes