'Ville-Marie': TIFF Review

Courtesy of Toronto International Film Festival
A promising and often insightful second feature.

Monica Bellucci plays a European star visiting Montreal for a movie shoot in Guy Edoin's second feature, which co-stars up-and-coming talent Aliocha Schneider as her son.

A European star with the face and body of Monica Bellucci lands in Montreal, where she hopes to find her 21-year-old son waiting for her, in Ville-Marie, the second narrative feature from French-Canadian director Guy Edoin. If the film, named after Montreal’s downtown district where the narrative unfolds, might at first sight seem the total opposite of the director’s rural Quebec-set debut, Wetlands, the two films share a lot of DNA, including an interest in complex mother/son dynamics. Working on a larger and more ambitious scale, Edoin juggles several intersecting storylines and navigates tricky tonal shifts as, in some film-within-a-film sequences, Ville-Marie morphs into a fictional melodrama.

Though occasionally blunt and derivative, Ville-Marie is is more often an insightful and admirably complex take on human behavior. It can only further cement Edoin’s reputation as one of Quebec’s brightest new directorial talents.

Bellucci plays Sophie Bernard, an actress who speaks a come-hither French (her exact origins are described only as “European”). The storyline involving her and her son, Thomas (Aliocha Schneider), who studies architecture in Montreal, borrows heavily from the work of Pedro Almodovar, at least in narrative terms. In Almodovar’s All About My Mother, a son has an accident, his mother hasn’t told him who his father is and she becomes the assistant of a major theater star. Here these elements have been only slightly compressed: Thomas asks his mother to reveal the name of his father as a birthday gift, just before he ends up in the hospital, while Sophie is not an actress’s PA but a star herself.

The film shoot that Sophie, an Italianate brunette, has nominally come to Montreal for is Paradise Boulevard, a 1950s-style melodrama in which her character has a blond Lana Turner bob. The project is directed by French-Canadian director Robert (Frederic Gilles), a former partner of Sophie’s who for 10 years helped bring up Thomas and who has used part of her life story as the inspiration for his film. The few extracts of Paradise sprinkled throughout the narrative are shown as completed sequences, composed of multiple shots and with a full-on orchestral score, as if the film were already finished instead of in the process of being shot. They help fill in Sophie’s backstory in a way that recalls Almodovar’s use of a film-within-a-film in Talk to Her. But thankfully, this is where the similarities with the Spanish Oscar-winner — himself not immune to the pull of 1950s melodramas — end. With the obvious exception of the feature Sophie and Robert are shooting, Ville-Marie is more down-to-earth and realistic in tone, and visually, the film little resembles an Almodovar movie.

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Besides Sophie and Thomas, Ville-Marie, co-written by Edoin and the Quebec novelist Jean-Simon DesRochers, follows several other characters. They include Marie (Pascale Bussieres, from Wetlands), a hardworking nurse at the emergency unit of Montreal’s Ville-Marie hospital, and the ambulance drivers Pierre (Patrick Hivon), a former soldier suffering from PTSD, and the flirty if already married Benoit (Louis Champagne), who both know Marie. The characters' lives intersect from scene one, in which a distraught mother (Larissa Corriveau) at a bus stop hands Thomas her newborn and then throws herself under a truck. This prompts the arrival of Pierre and Benoit, who take the heavily bleeding mother to Marie at Ville-Marie, while police officers have to pry the baby from Thomas’ hands (as someone who doesn’t know who his father is, he finds it hard — as possibly the last person to see the baby's mother, if only for seconds — to let the baby go). It’s a logical starting point, as themes such as the secret lives of those around us, the difficulties of motherhood and the absence of parents are explored throughout the film.

As Edoin observes his eclectic bunch of characters, it becomes clear that the actions of each one are informed by the need for self-protection from past or possible future pain. That’s why Sophie spent time working in Europe instead of looking after Thomas in Montreal, why Marie takes as many shifts at the hospital as possible and why Pierre pursues sexual encounters but avoids intimacy. When Sophie takes Thomas out for his birthday dinner, she embarrasses him by dressing up in a figure-hugging lamé dress — his reaction: “You look like a Christmas tree” — and singing a breathy version of the Elvis Presley song Can’t Help Falling In Love for him from the stage. She has no problem admitting she knows this will embarrass him. That she does so anyway suggests she’s a performer at heart and doesn’t know any other way to express her feelings.

Several such moments of insight regarding what feeds into people’s actions make Ville-Marie less a plot-driven drama then a drama exploring why humans behave as they do. A scene involving a distressed Sophie lashing out at Pierre is a good example, as is a conversation between Sophie and Marie about how they’ve both struggled with motherhood. It's moving to see the two women, from entirely different worlds, sit together on a park bench, in a straightforward medium two-shot, and recognize something within each other. The scene’s complexity is enhanced by the fact that the audience knows Marie hasn’t told Sophie the whole truth.

Sophie is one of Bellucci’s meatiest roles in recent years, if one with several meta touches. She’s superb as a woman who uses her diva attitude to keep the real world at bay, though that doesn’t mean she lacks real feelings. The reason she feels ambivalent toward her son is hammered home with a bit too much insistence — the autobiographical film-within-a-film is really enough — but for each moment of obviousness, there is another that’s daring and insightful. A sequence in a hospital bathroom — in which Sophie discards the trappings of the trade, for example — wordlessly suggests that even she needs to occasionally remind herself who hides behind the mask of her stardom. “Sometimes I feel you’re more authentic when you’re acting,” Robert tells her, though as the film makes abundantly clear, it’s not only the actress who’s constantly pretending.

In a much less showy role, Bussieres, who also played a mother called Marie in Wetlands, is Bellucci’s equal. She’s the kind of person who keeps everything inside her but sometimes just needs to let it all out, as in nighttime conversation with Pierre, played by Hivon with the right mix of intensity and standoffishness. The least developed major role is the one played by Schneider, the younger brother of Xavier Dolan’s Heartbearts actor Niels Schneider. A bit more time with him would have been welcome; there’s a sense he struggles with a bad breakup — “with guys, both of us have been unlucky,” he tells his mother — as well as with the fatherhood question, but despite the fact that the film starts and ends on him, it's hard to figure out what really makes him tick.


Production company: Max Films Media

Cast: Monica Bellucci, Pascale Bussieres, Aliocha Schneider, Patrick Hivon, Louis Champagne, Frederic Gilles, Stephanie Labbe, Larissa Corriveau

Director: Guy Edoin

Screenplay: Guy Edoin, Jean-Simon DesRochers

Producer: Felize Frappier

Executive producer: Roger Frappier

Director of photography: Serge Desrosiers

Production designer: David Pelletier

Costume designer: Julia Patkos

Editor: Yvann Thibaudeau

Music: Olivier Alary, Johannes Malfatti

Sales: Films Boutique

No rating, 101 minutes