Sunday, June 23, 2024

Movie Review (Cannes 2024): ‘Oh, Canada’ is an Honest and Moving Confessional

Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Paul Schrader, Russell Banks
Stars: Richard Gere, Jacob Elordi, Uma Thurman

Synopsis: Leonard Fife, one of sixty thousand draft evaders and deserters who fled to Canada to avoid serving in Vietnam, shares all his secrets to de-mythologize his mythologized life.

Paul Schrader’s cinema has always delved into the depths of death and existentialism, with some films more overtly exploring these themes than others. The characters he crafts, whether they be taxi drivers, drug dealers, gigolos, or boxers, all grapple with a profound sense of dread. They transform their trauma into a vocational obsession, constructing a facade that conceals their past struggles and perturbations. Schrader’s works, particularly those in the latter half of his career, serve as a confessional for these characters as they introspect on their lives and strive for redemption. You are invited to listen to their revelations and delve into their fractured psyche. The contemplation of broken men on a canvas has become more simplistic, yet no less intriguing to explore, even when these introspections are not entirely successful. 

This self-analysis and exploration by the characters are now prevalent in a more literal form in Schrader’s latest work, Oh, Canada, an adaptation of Russell Banks’ novel ‘Foregone’ from two years ago. After a series of tragic events for him, like the passing of his friend Russell Banks, his health scares, and caring for his wife after being diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Paul Schrader is now, more than ever, thinking and reflecting on mortality. A string of events made him ponder what’s next for him and how much time he has, both in and out of cinema. Feeling like death was near, he decided to make a movie about that same predicament: running out of time. 

“If I want to make a film about death, I’d better hurry up”, said Schrader in an interview with Le Monde. This is why Oh, Canada has a sense of urgency. Even though his previous work covered prevalent and important topics, they often lacked the immediacy that adds emotional depth to a film. Schrader taps into a manner of storytelling that we haven’t seen from him before; he is reflective and more personal, which amounts to a moving portrait of a flawed man looking back at his life and coming to terms with his mistakes and regrets. Oh, Canada tells the story of the fictional documentarian Leonard Fife (Richard Gere, returning to work with Schrader after 44 years, delivering his best performance in a very long time). 

In 1968, he dodged the draft that was going to send Leonard to the Vietnam War by fleeing to Canada, marrying one of his students, Emma (Uma Thurman), so that he could permanently stay, ridden of the atrocities that occurred at the time. To this day, he feels the pain of his choices, burdened by the effect of what happened during the war, where thousands of young men were sent out to die. And as he has aged, this feeling has increased. Leonard doesn’t show that guilt outwardly; it is mostly internal. But when he agrees to do an interview with two of his old students, Malcolm (Michale Imperioli) and his partner, Diana (Victoria Hill), these emotions are given a time in the spotlight. 

What was initially considered a celebration of his work becomes a confessional. Leonard is questioned about everything that happened in his life, including the partner and child he left behind when he fled to Canada. Leonard isn’t resistant to revealing his past; as a matter of fact, he is insistent on doing so. Leonard wants Emma to know what he has done and who he really is. But the man can’t seem to piece together every memory of that neglected past. The crew and companions around him blame it on his cancer treatment, which has increased due to his condition worsening. This is where Schrader cuts back and forth between the present and the concealed past. The audience slowly learns about what Leonard has been hiding for decades. 

Via flashbacks, we see a young Leonard (played by Jacob Elordi) gearing up to leave his humble life in Virginia, living with a caring wife and a son, to enroll as a teacher in Vermont. In these scenes, you notice the differences in Leonard’s persona. When he was young, the man was charismatic and visionary; meanwhile, he is now pompous and egotistical. He packed his bags on moral grounds and unpacked everything for the first time in public. It brings a haunting sensation of existential regret and hindrance to the film. Leonard continues to share as everyone begs him to stop confessing his hard choices – pouring his heart and soul into the camera recording him. The people in the room and the audience watching are now asked to decide whether or not to judge Leonard for all that he has admitted. 

Evidently, through the project’s backstory and narrative, Oh, Canada is Paul Schrader’s most personal film to date. He takes parts of his own life to plant inside the scripture of Banks’ novel as an ode to his dear friend and a way to be vulnerable with the audience. This is why we get a sense of familiarity in the company of Leonard. We see a bit of the influential American director in him, which both Gere and Elordi bring to life remarkably. Schrader reflects on his worries, offenses, and struggles to ensure the film has that genuine feeling of a confessional – a filmmaker who has been quite indulgent in doing an open testimony. Via the power of cinema, these emotions get transmitted to the viewer on multiple levels. 

Oh, Canada contains a sense of honesty that Schrader hasn’t seen before. Like Francis Ford Coppola in Megalopolis, Schrader puts his thoughts on the passing of time and our inability to stop it on a cinematic canvas—although the director of Apocalypse Now was less successful at doing so with his thematic exploration. Both veteran filmmakers who have graced the screen with masterpieces of their own in the 70s and 80s have endured many hindrances across their careers. Somehow, Oh, Canada and Megalopolis arrive not only in unison (both screening in competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival), but at the perfect time. They are at a point in their life where they notice more of the remaining sand in the hourglass. And it is fascinating how the two intersect. 

Schrader’s latest is thematically tragic, cinematically moving, and, most importantly, filled with hope, yearning for us who still have time on our hands to self-reflect on our lives before it is too late. As grim and anxiety-inducing as it may sound, that’s the thought that lingers in your head after watching Oh, Canada. Through the puzzle Leonard is trying to assemble, we slowly come to our own conclusions about where we are headed, at least at this point in time. It is missing a couple of pieces to complete the picture, just like Leonard’s confession is just a part of it – a human element that holds onto you. Instead of gnawing and unforgiving notions about death, we get a more evocative one. Oh, Canada is more than a gateway into Schrader’s psyche; it is a candid divulgence, rampant Facebook comments and all.

Grade: B+

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