Canadian artist and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce’s Saint-Narcisse closed the Venice Film Festival’s Venice Days last week, where it was nominated for the festival’s Queer Lion. Although LaBruce’s latest feature is not playing in competition at TIFF it was part of the festival’s Industry Selects lineup, and we’re happy that it was. It’s a gloriously bizzare, endlessly intriguing dark comedy homage to the Québécois cinema of the 1970s with a theme inspired by the Greek myth of Narcissus that resonates in these days of social media solipsism. There are also references to the early Christian martyr, and latterday gay icon, Saint Sebastian, with the voyeurism and homoeroticism associated with the scantily clad depictions of his suffering; something explored by Derek Jarman in his 1976 film Sebastiane (which I had a very well-worn VHS taped-from-television copy of as a teenager).
In Montréal, Québec, 1972, we meet 22 year-old Dominic who is obsessed with his own image, and as played by the dreamily handsome Félix-Antoine Duval it’s easy to see the attraction. We see him take endless Polaroid selfies (à la Madonna in Desperately Seeking Susan) wherever he might be, such as wondering the streets at night, handing them out at he goes, and later vigorously masturbating over a collection of the photos in his bedroom. In the film’s erotic and visually striking laundromat set opening Dominic fantasies about having sex with a woman who’s doing her laundry, but even in the fantasy he’s taken with his own reflection and someone who looks like him in the crowd that’s gathered outside to watch them through the window. The Poppy Family’s Where Evil Grows from 1971 plays on the soundtrack helping establish the tone and root us in the period.
Brought up by his grandmother, Dominic learns that his mother Beatrice (a suitably kooky and passionately intense Tania Kontoyanni) whom he thought was dead might actually be alive and so he heads to the countryside on his motorcycle, clad in sexy leathers, to seek out her. He initially receives a hostile reception from Irene (a wonderful Alexandra Petrachuk), the younger woman his mother is living with, but Beatrice welcomes him with open arms, having been told that he’d been stillborn. She believes that Dominic was secretly taken away from her when it was discovered that was a lesbian. Exiled from society, the locals consider her to be witch.
In the nearby town of Saint-Narcisse, Dominic catches sight of a young monk who appears to be his doppelgänger, Daniel (also Félix-Antoine Duval). He lives at the local monastery where he self-flagellates as he gets off to the mens underwear section of a clothing catalogue. Daniel is being abused by the Saint Sebastian obsessed Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis), who worships at the bloodstained feet of a statue of the saint in his chambers, while recreating the torture he suffered by tying up the young monk in his care. Dominic later encounters his naked doppelgänger in the woods, in a highly charged erotic scene. When Dominic confesses to Irene that he’s seen someone whom he believes might be his identical twin she’s unconvinced: “You’re so self-absorbed, you see your own likeness everywhere”, she says, before instructing him to, “go fuck himself” which in the context of this film is more like encouragement than an insult.
With striking period production design, there are some nice details such as the young monk casually reading William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist, published a year before the film is set. Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux’s score helps set the 70s vibe too with gothic organ music for the monastery set scenes. Cinematographer Michel LaVeaux’s work also helps immerse us in the visual film language of the late 60s and early 70s complete with plenty of expressive zooms, and although the movie’s shot on digital it’s given a 35mm vibe with the lighting, grading and tones. The are also some gorgeous exterior locations including the lake where we get the visual feast of a sequence that sees Daniel along with five of his fellow monks skinny-dipping; wrestling, splashing one another, dunking one another in the water and teasing each other with near kisses, as Dominic spies on them with his binoculars.
Although the pace is a little slow at times, and some of the dialogue a touch obvious, it’s an ambitious work that sustains the sense mystery effectively and there’s plenty to delight in throughout. Félix-Antoine Duval’s dual performances are charismatic and absorbing, and he manages to bring two distinct energies to his characterisations of Dominic and Daniel. LaBruce’s names for the men is a homage to De Palma’s female twins , Dominique and Danielle, played by Margot Kidder in his 1972 horror classic Sisters, and in its own way Saint-Narcisse is just as memorable and enjoyable as that cult picture. Watching this film alone in my apartment I missed the communal festival experience and I’m sure a late night screening would lead to plenty of group gasps and laughter, in fact this might just be a twincestuous future cult classic.
By James Kleinmann
Bruce LaBruce’s Saint-Narcisse had it’s world premiere at Venice Days, and was included in TIFF Industry Selects 2020. It plays Vancouver International Film Fsetival (VIFF) from September 24th to October 1st, for more details and book tickets head to the VIFF website.