'Love in the Time of Civil War' ('L'amour au temps de la guerre civile'): Toronto Review

Love in the Time of Civil War
Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A fully committed lead performance anchors intentionally repetitive scenes

Director Rodrigue Jean's latest film stars French-Canadian up-and-comer Alexandre Landry ("Gabrielle") as a drug addict always looking for his next fix

An unflinching account of the life of a drug addict and male hustler in Montreal that seems to unfold entirely in the present tense, Love in the Time of Civil War (L’Amour au temps de la guerre civile) is a bleak and quite intense if not necessarily pleasant time at the movies. This 120-minute search for the next hit or high was directed by Francophone New Brunswick filmmaker Rodrigue Jean (Lost Song, Yellowknife), who earlier explored the same milieu in his documentary Men for Sale and who used writing workshops with sex workers as the basis for Love’s screenplay. A fully committed and vanity-free performance by rising Quebec star Alexandre Landry anchors the otherwise intentionally monotonous material, which, after a premiere on home turf at the recent Toronto fest, stands a good chance of touring the general and queer fest circuits.

The opening scene sees Alex (Landry) and Bruno (Jean-Simon Leduc) having sex in a seedy hotel, with the act captured by cinematographer Mathieu Laverdiere’s camera in restless and uncomfortably close close-ups. Like elsewhere in the film, the moment is staged as a high, zooming in on details without really showing the bigger picture, suggesting that the searching and groping qualities of sexual arousal are signs of an irrational need that simply needs to be satisfied.

The precise rapport between Bruno and Alex will become only a little clearer as the film progresses, as for Alex there’s little difference between johns, casual lovers and fellow addicts. For Alex, intercourse seems to be a commodity as well as a necessity, something that can procure a physical high but also can be done for payment, which in turn can be used to buy whatever drugs are available for his next chemical high.

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The screenplay, credited to Ron Ladd, has no narrative throughline, as Alex has sex for money or simply steals from his johns, hangs out with his druggie friends (some of whom are straight, but he tries to convince them to have sex with him anyway) and tries to find a place to sleep, at least for the night. In short, the protagonist simply tries to get by, with his mind fixed — when it is not too spaced out — only on how to obtain the next high. One act doesn’t seem to have more consequences than another; at one point Alex is arrested in a drug bust, but the next shot sees him leave the police station and simply continue doing what he was doing before.

While this approach will frustrate viewers looking for a story to get a handle on the material, it is very effective at illustrating other points. The intentional, almost numbing repetition of similar scenes, for example, suggests that addicts seem to live only in the now, their actions entirely dictated by their next high. Indeed, they themselves don’t have a narrative in mind for their own lives, as the only moment that exists is the one until their next fix.

Jean's approach here is similar to in Men for Sale, a documentary that featured interviews with Montreal hustlers that ran a whopping 145 minutes and that got its point across by virtue of repetition. Each interviewee sounded like the other and taken together, they suggest not necessarily that all male sex workers are exactly alike but that their problems are not isolated cases, and that, since the troubles are so similar, it should be possible to do something about them collectively.  

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Theater-trained actor Landry, who played Tom in the original stage version of Tom at the Farm (later filmed by Xavier Dolan, who took over the title role) and who also impressed as a young man with Williams syndrome in Canada's 2013 Oscar hopeful Gabrielle, here throws himself into the material with typical abandon and achieves something that’s very difficult to do: Playing an archetype with no character arc and no redeeming qualities, he nonetheless succeeds in keeping the viewer involved. If anything, his is almost a non-performance, as he lends his body to the character but not his mind and soul, both long gone up in clouds of smoke for Alex. It’s both mysterious and mesmerizing to watch his disembodied presence, as it stumbles from one scene into another, from one short-term idea to the other, driven by the force of habit rather than any direct will to live — much less accomplish anything that doesn't deliver near-instant gratification. 

Almost as if to underline that this particular cycle could continue ad infinitum (if an overdose doesn't cut it short first), the film is exactly 120 minutes long, though there’s no sense that editor Mathieu Bouchard-Malo has had to compromise anywhere to achieve this, as the film’s rhythm sways back and forth between intense and impatient. The cluttered production design and ditto costumes underline the squalor of the milieu in which Alex moves, where a spring-cleaning session is about as utopian as winning millions in the lottery. Several outdoor scenes shot during the depth of winter further underline how inhospitable Montreal can be for those living on the street.

Production companies: Transmar Films, Les Films du 3 Mars
Cast: Alexandre Landry, Jean-Simon Leduc, Simon Lefebvre, Catherine-Audrey Lachapelle, Ana Christina Alva, Eric Robidoux
Director: Rodrigue Jean
Screenplay: Ron Ladd
Producers: Cedric Bourdeau, Rodrigue Jean
Executive producer: Patricia Bergeron
Director of photography: Mathieu Laverdiere
Costume designer: Caroline Poirier
Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo
Sales: Les Films du 3 Mars

No rating, 120 minutes