LAUGHTER (2020) is a remarkable French-Canadian drama about a woman struggling with memory and meaning years after a civil war in Quebec, in which she was the sole survivor of a horrifying massacre. It’s weird, it’s philosophical, and some of its symbolism was lost on me, but it’s quite remarkable. I liked it a lot. The more I think about it, the more I believe I actually love it.
Early in the film, Valerie (Léane Labrèche-Dor) survives a mass execution. Jump forward some years: The war’s over, and she’s living with a new boyfriend in Montreal, where she works at a nursing home. She struggles with grief and horrifying memories but has found a way to bury it all. When she sees one of the soldiers from the massacre living in her neighborhood, a flood of grief and memory begins to crush her. Meanwhile, a resident at the nursing home, confronting the imminence of her own death, offers a new perspective on life.
There’s some incredibly powerful drama here, though it’s jarring, as the war barely seems to exist except in the past, somewhere else, to other people, which begs credulity while watching. Valerie’s internal visualizations and several side plots–a woman who believes she’s somebody else, a young woman who forever cries in one of the nursing home rooms, a friend/assistant who appears to be orchestrating things behind the scenes, a man who dreams he’s on a plane looking down at his city but can’t find his home–most of it has little to do with the main plot, resulting in the film coming off as unfocused. After a while, you just run with it as you understand all the other stuff in the film is tied together by theme.
The theme itself is strong, overt, uncomfortable, engaging. There’s a strong philosophical vibe, specifically existentialism, and specifically Albert Camus, who wrote about the absurdity of the human condition. Man is alone in the universe, horrible things happen, we go on despite that. The film explores banality–the banality of life and death, the banality of evil. Tragedy strikes without meaning. But even in tragedy, there is humor, people laugh at a good joke. They take their joys where and when they can, and that’s a win, that’s something beautiful. The mix of drama and absurdity is powerful enough that it seems to risk becoming a pretentious art house project, but it steers well clear of that, finding its own territory somewhere near the great THE SEVENTH SEAL.
A part of me wishes the film had stayed focused on Valerie and let me appreciate the film’s philosophy and themes conveyed with more subtlety, but that’s not the film its maker wanted to create, and he did a good enough job–backed up by some incredible acting and riveting drama–that I quickly accepted the film on its terms. The overall effect is quite something, a powerful story about the absurdity of the human condition, how horror is a part of life, but so is joy, and regardless of which happens, life goes on.
(Watched at the Calgary Underground Film Festival, likely coming to VOD soon. You can watch it through May 2 here: https://www.calgaryundergroundfilm.org/2021/laughter)