It’s fair to say that Canadian director, Matt Bissonnette, is a Leonard Cohen fan. His debut feature in 2002 was called Looking for Leonard, and now comes Death of a Ladies Man, inspired by Cohen’s album of 1977. I’m not quite sure how an album, or the title of an album, gets transformed into a story, but Bissonnette has made an odd, unclassifiable film that combines comedy, drama, tragedy and a musical homage to his favourite singer.
If the whole thing holds together it’s largely thanks to a wholehearted performance by Gabriel Byrne in the role of Samuel O’Shea, a professor of English literature with an insatiable taste for women and liquor, and a predictably disastrous private life.
The film begins with Sam making an unscheduled return home in a taxi, after realising on the the way to the airport that he’d forgotten his wallet. He finds his much younger wife in bed with a much younger man and agrees immediately to a divorce. It’s shocking for him to realise he can be on the receiving end of marital infidelity, which is one of his specialities.
This domestic catastrophe gives Sam a perfect excuse to indulge his other major interest – getting smashed in a bar. To make matters worse his ice hockey-playing son has just announced that he’s gay, while his actress daughter has taken up with a new boyfriend who has a severe drug habit. The biggest problem of all is that Sam is suffering from fantastic hallucinations that seem to occur anywhere, any time, usually accompanied by a Leonard Cohen song.
This may take the form of hockey players dancing in formation on the ice, to the strains of Bird on a Wire; or Frankenstein listening to Sam’s maudlin tales in a bar. But his chief recurrent fantasy is a visit from his dead father (Brian Gleeson), who departed this earth when Sam was still a teenager in Ireland. His mother had already left several years previously, never to be seen again.
Between drinks Sam goes for a checkup to find out what’s causing the hallucinations. The doctor (Pascale Bussières), suspects it’s the booze but an MRI scan reveals a huge, inoperable tumor. From this point on Sam is living under a death sentence. His first impulse is to go get drunk, but then he feels the need to patch up his relationships with his son, Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon), his daughter, Josée (Karelle Tremblay) and his ex-wife, Geneviève (Suzanne Clément). You may remember Quebcois actors, Pilon and Clément, from Xavier Dolan’s Mommy (2014), where the action was more intense and anxious.
As Sam sits at the dinner table with his fractured family, celebrating Thanksgiving, he can’t begin to tell them about his diagnosis. Not even when he sees the Grim Reaper sitting at Genviève’s shoulder.
In the next chapter our hero goes off to his ancestral home in Ireland to write the book he’s always wanted to write. There, in a corner store, he meets Charlotte (Jessica Paré) a French Canadian expat, and begins a new romance. Once introduced, the Reaper hangs around, appearing in scene after scene, like a parody of The Seventh Seal.
As the story moves toward a conclusion it becomes increasingly difficult to separate reality from Sam’s fantasies. The blasts of Leonard Cohen are a major giveaway but we begin to suspect that other events are no less imaginary. The most solid, reassuring parts of the film may be Sam’s conversations with his dead father, who regularly drops in for a meal and a cigarette. Father and son chew over the past, and the reasons why Sam has made such a mess of his own life.
I won’t reveal the ending, although it’s not the slow decline into oblivion one might expect. If the movie manages to stay on the right side of quirky it’s because Gabriel Byrne makes Sam into a convincing personality whose charm never quite deserts him, whether he’s chatting up the desirable Charlotte, or vomiting in a waste paper bin during a poetry lecture. He’s disreputable but never dull. When he thinks of his death it’s not without fear and regret, but there’s a powerful sense of irony as well.
If you like Leonard Cohen as much as Bissonnette you won’t have a problem with the musical interludes, but they interrupt the narrative in a jarring manner. It harks back to a recent trend in French cinema when songs started appearing in the most unlikely places. In Valérie Donzelli’s A Declaration of War (2011), for instance, a couple tries to cope with their child’s mortal illness by occasionally breaking into a pop song.
In a musical or a Bollywood film it’s expected that every plot twist will be accompanied by a song or a dance, but when these numbers are wedged into a conventional, character-driven narrative all genre expectations are upset. The movie becomes a hybrid – neither one thing nor another. This can be quite deliberate, intended to be liberating or (dread word!) subversive, but it generates a degree of confusion.
Death of a Ladies Man is a hybrid in another sense, being a Canadian-Irish co-production, complete with muttered traces of Gaelic and Quebecois. Sam is a very Irish character – the descendant of many a literary drunk, from Brendan Behan to Flann O’Brien, yet he finds himself lecturing on local idols such as Margaret Atwood. As a rule the Irish are much better at earthy humour than the Canadians, and it’s almost impossible to imagine this film with a Canadian actor in the lead role (although you’d be surprised how many high-profile ‘American’ actors are Canadians).
There are lots of reasons why Death of a Ladies Man shouldn’t work but I could never quite let it go. As we watch Sam stumbling between drinks and songs, making his way towards life’s finish line, one thinks of Leonard Cohen: “Like a drunk in a midnight choir I have tried in my way to be free.”
Death of a Ladies Man
Directed by Matt Bissonnette
Written by Matt Bissonette & Bobby Theodore
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Suzanne Clément, Jessica Paré, Brian Gleeson, Anoine Olivier Pilon, Karelle Tremblay, Joel Bissonette, Pascale Bussières
Canada/Ireland, rated MA 15+, 100 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 21 May, 2021