'Our Loved Ones' ('Les Etres Chers'): TIFF Review

Courtesy of Festival del Film Locarno
An impressive second feature that x-rays a Quebec family over several decades.

Director Anne Emond's rich family saga stars Maxim Gaudette as a troubled Quebec father, Valerie Cadieux as his wife and Karelle Tremblay as their teenage daughter.

Simultaneously an expansive, richly detailed family chronicle and an intimate two-hander about a troubled father’s relationship with his spirited teenage daughter, Our Loved Ones (Les Etres Chers) marks a decisive step up for Quebec director Anne Emond (Nuit #1). Produced by Montreal-based Metafilms, which also made Xavier Dolan’s Mommy, another film about frayed family ties further eroded by mental illness, this might be a more tonally restrained and conventionally made film but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t pack a powerful emotional wallop. After premieres in Locarno and Toronto, Loved Ones should continue to travel widely on the festival circuit. Though it features no international marquee names, the relatively easy-to-market format of a family history could further help make this a low-threshold item for Francophile distributors looking to fill their big or small screens.

The film kicks off in the late 1970s, with the unexpected death of the paterfamilias of the Leblanc clan. Some of his five kids (and the viewers) know that the old man hanged himself, something that’s explained in a brief and very gloomy shot that hangs like a dark cloud over everything that’ll follow. But eldest son David (Maxim Gaudette) is told Dad succumbed to a sudden heart attack. According to the will, David’s mother (veteran actress Louise Turcot) receives everything with the exception of Dad’s working tools, which served to make string puppets or marionettes. They go to David, much to the frustration of his younger brother, Andre (Mickael Gouin), who seems to interpret it as a slight of not only his talent and interest in the family business, but also more generally as a denial of fatherly love.

Sometime in the early 1980s, David meets Marie (Valerie Cadieux), who’s a lodger at the house of one of his sisters. There are no other scenes between the two meeting for the first time, kissing on a frozen lake in winter. The story then skips even further ahead to summer, where David improvises a song inspired by her, and then to a shot of them arriving for a family visit with a baby girl in tow. Emond, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t waste words or time here, with the film’s first act hurtling forward in time at breakneck speed, using enormous ellipses. Thankfully, editing maestro Mathieu Bouchard-Malo’s sharp work never seems to sacrifice storylines or relationships for the sake of expediency. The first real narrative bomb drops some 30 minutes in, as David’s mostly idyllic progression from son to father is thrown for a loop when an inebriated Andre reveals how their Dad really died. It’s almost shocking to realize that by this point, his eldest, Laurence (Karelle Tremblay) is already an adolescent and even her kid brother has just hit his teens.

It emerges that David wasn’t told earlier because he’s the "sensitive one" of the bunch (his mother was never told either). Clearly, the revelation hits him like a ton of bricks, but Emond doesn’t overstate the point. Quite the contrary, and much like that earlier shot of David's dead father, she moves on quickly to more quotidian details of the protagonists’ lives. But it’s clear that these major shocks reverberate and aren’t just forgotten. When David goes on his long, lonely walks in the woods and stares into the mid-distance, there’s time for the audience to reflect on what he might be thinking about and there’s an opportunity for them to put two and two together.   

Though some might see the film as a relatively straightforward family saga, that assessment unjustly ignores the film’s structural finesse. Emond and Bouchard-Malo manage — after that whirlwind of spanning almost two-decades in the first half-hour — to let the rest of the drama unspool at a much calmer and introspective pace. And though the entire family doesn’t disappear, David and the teenage Laurence’s rapport becomes the film’s natural focus. Their relationship is one filled with almost unconditional love but also with conflict. In just a few exchanges, the film manages to suggest that David wants her to do well, expresses how proud he is of her talents and conveys the idea she could do anything (he never studied and was practically forced to take over his father’s dolls business). But since this involves admitting he read her diary, it backfires in a way that ends with him going to bed that night, saying: "I liked it better when the kids were small."

Of course, he doesn’t mean that and it is just such apparently contradictory details that make the material come alive, with all kinds of questions related to transmission surfacing more strongly as the film progresses. Emond is really good at finding the right particulars and tone for this kind of material, with everyday occurrences and gestures taking on added weight when viewed in the context of entire lives and even bloodlines.

After having impressed in supporting roles in Denis Villeneuve’s Polytechnique, in which he played the killer, and Incendies, Gaudette here gets a plump and challenging lead role and runs with it, precisely modulating David’s growth, pride and fears across several decades. Tremblay (Corbo) is equally good in less screen-time, credibly developing her relationship with not only her father but all the men in her life, including her boyfriends. And in just a handful of scenes, Turcot leaves an indelible impression, with an intimate conversation between Laurence and Grandma that is especially memorable. Cadieux, as the mother, has less to do, though she acquits herself admirably.

The core team of below-the-line contributors is largely the same as the one that worked on Emond’s first feature, with not only Bouchard-Malo editing but Eric Barbeau handling art direction again and Mathieu Laverdiere responsible for the film’s supple cinematography. The costume design, hair and make-up are thankfully not too obsessed with aging and getting the period right, allowing the characters’ emotions to take center stage rather than anyone’s bad wig or ridiculous clothes. Visually, the film contrasts not only summer and winter but also the old and new continents, when the story takes an unexpected detour to Barcelona, where the weight of the preceding generations suddenly hangs heavy over the proceedings but Emond treads delicately. If the finale may be somber, and visually somewhat cliched, it's definitely not without hope. 

Production companies: Metafilms

Cast: Maxim Gaudette, Karelle Tremblay, Valerie Cadieux, Louise Turcot, Mickael Gouin, Simon Landry-Desy, Antoine Desrochers

Writer-Director: Anne Emond

Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant

Director of photography: Mathieu Laverdiere

Production designer: Eric Barbeau

Costume designer: Patricia McNeil

Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo

Music: Martin Leon

Sales: Wide


No rating, 101 minutes