'Ville Neuve': Film Review | Venice 2018

Courtesy of Venice Film Festival
Animated fare for viewers with a taste for the forlorn.

French-Canadian director Felix Dufour-Laperriere's animated feature debut was entirely drawn with ink on paper.

A man involved in a violent brawl goes back to a cabin on the sea he loved in the black-and-white animated feature Ville Neuve, the debut from French-Canadian director Felix Dufour-Laperriere. Entirely drawn by hand and on paper, this film has a melancholy feel in terms of its technical qualities as well as its story, with the protagonist trying to reconnect with a past that cannot be relived, even after his ex decides to show up in the titular town on the Gaspe Peninsula where the protagonist has sought refuge. Setting the story in 1995, in the lead-up to the second referendum on the possible independence of Quebec, adds a historical layer as well, though Dufour-Laperriere never quite manages to connect the intimate and personal with the larger sociopolitical picture. This Venice Days premiere should attract some interest in Canada — it will premiere at home in Vancouver, not at Toronto — and in animated circles.

Joseph (voiced by Robert Lalonde, Shake Hands With the Devil), who harbors feelings of anger as well as anguish, has returned to Gaspesie, where he has a friend whose small vacation home on the Atlantic he once stayed in with his then-wife Emma (Denys Arcand regular Johanne-Marie Tremblay). His return to the exact same home is not coincidental, though his desire to reconnect with Emma in the place where he thinks they perhaps were happiest together is complicated. Joseph calls her collect from a cafe in town and she takes his calls but initially doesn’t really say that much. 

Dufour-Laperriere then brutally switches point of view and shows Emma at her home, where we see her interact with the couple’s teenage son, Ulysse (Theodore Pellerin, who recently headlined Genesis, from the same production company). He is not interested in his father and also uncertain about the upcoming referendum. In short, everyone and everything seems unsure. But then Emma shows up in Gaspe, even though she admits she is unsure why she’s there. And thus Dufour-Laperriere brings his two main strands together and a tentative reconnection begins against the backdrop of Quebec’s possible separation from the rest of Canada.

Working in black-and-white and with pen and (one assumes) water, the overall mood of the film is quite gloomy, with Joseph’s storyline in particular developed against a lot of dark yet often elementally sketched-out backgrounds. The characters are similarly reduced to their essence, drawn in outlines that are then filled in with near-solid blocks of black or gray. The overall sensation is of a home-drawn comic come to life, which gives Ville Neuve a pleasingly personal feeling. But the film’s bi-chrome visuals also make it far from a commercial proposition, though perhaps Emma, who praises the virtues of Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev to Ulysse in the film, might be part of the niche audience that would enjoy bleak-looking and forlorn-feeling film such as this one.

Though a gifted animator with a minimalist but personal style, Dufour-Laperriere isn’t quite a great screenwriter, or at least not yet. Though the screenplay was inspired by the New Yorker short story Chef’s House from Raymond Carver, the adaptation feels sketchy and unpolished. When he draws the aging, naked bodies of Joseph and Emma, it communicates much more than when they utter their rather pedestrian dialogue. An interlude in which Joseph asks Emma, a writer, to read him something she’s recently written, is also more interesting for what happens onscreen than for what she says. “It’s like a prophecy,” Joseph concludes, suggesting that he didn’t really get it either, though the question thus becomes what the purpose or meaning of this whole interlude was on a narrative level. The protagonist’s alcoholism has also been downplayed here, making it harder to figure out why Joseph suddenly finds himself facing some pretty big questions.

An element that was not in the Carver story — first published in 1981, incidentally also the year of the director’s birth — is of course the Quebec setting and the choice to situate it specifically in 1995. That change might seem like a great idea on paper, especially because contrasting a possible separation on a state level with a desire to reconnect on a personal level could be very fertile ground for reinforcing and questioning some of the story’s core themes while exploring the notion if any past was really as idyllic as we remember it years later and whether that can be recaptured. But Dufour-Laperriere doesn’t manage to really connect the national and personal levels, so all the political material finally feels more like a backdrop or context rather than an integral part of the reimagined story’s fabric. 

That said, there’s enough talent on display to make one wonder what the director will do next. 

Production company: Productions l’unite centrale
Cast: Robert Lalonde, Johanne-Marie Tremblay, Theodore Pellerin, Gildor Roy, Paul Ahmarani
Writer-director: Felix Dufour-Laperriere, screenplay based on the Raymond Carver story Chef’s House
Producer: Galile Marion-Gauvin
Director of photography: Felix Dufour-Laperriere
Editing: Felix Dufour-Laperriere
Music: Jean L’Appeau
Sales: Urban Distribution International 
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Venice Days)

In Quebec French
No rating, 76 minutes