‘Chorus’: Sundance Review

Anouk Lessard
This bleak emotional drama strains to connect.

Francois Delisle’s French-language Canadian feature co-stars Fanny Mallette and Sebastien Ricard

Writer-director Francois Delisle brought his fifth feature The Meteor to Sundance two years ago, where the avowedly experimental work screened in the New Frontier sidebar section. His minimalist drama Chorus shows up in the typically more accessible World Cinema narrative lineup this year, although this is decidedly severe material – an almost unrelentingly litany of grief and blame that’s likely to give any number of viewers pause, although those who can personally identify with the storyline and advocates of unadorned existential confrontation may find reason to relate.

Emotionally starved relationships, child abuse and an aloof directorial style aren’t typically elements that draw legions of adherents to a film, however, and this obliquely pitched, starkly shot black-and-white feature exploring the dark emotional depths of dramatic storytelling could face limited options for release.

The death of a child is an incomparably devastating blow for parents; even when it’s delayed by circumstance the impact can be crippling. A decade after the tragic disappearance of their eight-year-old son Hugo, separated Canadian parents Christophe (Sebastien Ricard) and Irene (Fanny Mallette) remain adamantly estranged. Christophe has fled to Mexico, where he barely subsists working odd jobs, occasionally contemplating suicide. Irene distances herself from personal relationships, including her mother (Genevieve Bujold), immersed in a career as a professional vocalist for a Montreal chorus performing medieval musical arrangements, cocooned in a rarified world of polyphonic performances and grand cathedrals.

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The sudden and unexpected confession of imprisoned pedophile Jean-Pierre (Luc Senay) reveals to detective Laroche (Didier Lucien) that the convict kidnapped and sexually abused Hugo ten years previous, before murdering him after the child became irredeemably disconsolate. Locating the boy’s hastily buried remains, Laroche identifies them through DNA analysis and informs Irene that her son has regrettably been found. Her desperate phone call to Christophe brings him back to wintry Canada to help with the disposition of Hugo’s remains while visiting his elderly father (Pierre Curzi). Nearly incapacitated by overwhelming grief, Irene and Christophe must not only reconcile the loss of their child, but also attempt to resolve the fragile remnants of their former marriage.

As writer, director, DP and editor, Delisle maintains tight control of the film’s narrative, tone and visual aesthetic, determined to make an unflinching examination of how personal tragedy shapes the lives of those most directly involved. Terse conversations, sudden emotional outbursts and occasional non-dialogue sequences suggest that these characters are marooned in their isolation, rarely inclined to reach out for support.  

Mallette imbues Irene with an air of enduring sorrow, as she laments the loss of her son as well as her husband with repeated, fragmented voiceover, amply conveying the tragedy of her personal loss. While Irene occasionally reveals her fragile emotional state, Ricard gives a stonily stoic performance, embodying Christophe with the trauma of a man still imprisoned by shock and grief. That facade cracks when he insists on viewing the video of the police interview with Jean-Pierre as the prisoner describes in detail how he abused Christophe’s child, in just one of several wrenching scenes of unvarnished full disclosure.

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Delisle’s choice to shoot in black-and-white emphasizes the lead characters’ limited emotional range and frequent disregard for one another, as well as both of their widowed parents, whom they each treat with minimal consideration. Static master shots and meticulous framing augment this deliberate distancing, resulting in a chilly tone that wavers only briefly when Irene and Christophe tentatively attempt to reconcile one evening before his inevitable departure.

Despite the film’s stricken tenor, Delisle’s accomplished monochromatic cinematography adorns the Montreal winter scenes and a series of stark interiors with a luminescent inner glow that nevertheless can’t dispel Chorus’ sense of deep foreboding. Genevieve Lizotte’s spare production design and Caroline Poirier’s subdued costuming augment the film’s overall air of unrequited despair.

Production company: Films 53/12

Cast: Fanny Mallette, Sebastien Ricard, Genevieve Bujold, Pierre Curzi, Antoine L’Ecuyer, Luc Senay, Didier Lucien

Director-writer: Francois Delisle

Producers: Maxime Bernard, Francois Delisle

Director of photography: Francois Delisle

Production designer: Genevieve Lizotte

Costume designer: Caroline Poirier

Editor: Francois Delisle

Casting director: Pierre Pageau

Music: Robert Marcel Lepage

Sales: Funfilm Distribution

No rating, 96 minutes