Here’s a sad fact about the Toronto International Film Festival. Unless they have Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg’s name on them, works on display by Canadian filmmakers tend to generate about as much buzz as a squashed bumblebee. Not that my Canadian friends and critics even necessarily insist upon there being a wide array of ignored masterworks from our northern neighbors, but the momentous gap in response between Egoyan’s rollicking maybe-comedy Chloe (which, a friend insisted was, considering its greenhouse motif, vanquished villains falling from windows, and the presence of Julianne Moore, veritably a remake of Curtis Hanson’s trash classic The Hand That Rocks the Cradle—only sans, you know, nanny) and Denis Côté’s tranquilly innovative Carcasses is just further evidence of world cinema indifference to Canada. Of course, the comparison between those two wildly different films (sudsy sapphic sorta thriller vs. minimalist quasi-documentary) may not be thematically apt, but Quebecois filmmaker Côté’s reputation in Canada doesn’t seem to have even piqued the interest of art-film followers. I will admit to never having seen a Côté film before Carcasses, his fourth, but now I consider my interest sufficiently stoked. Like some of the other best films that played at TIFF ’09, such as Hadewijch and White Material, Carcasses leaves the audience baffled as to its filmmaker’s motives, which in turn challenges us to look past our own preconceptions about narrative, character, and, moving beyond cinema, just plain folks.
Not that Carcasses is necessarily as concerned with “real people” as it initially seems. For the first half of this 72-minute film, we feel deeply ensconced in a hushed, apparently documentary portrait of Jean-Paul Colmor, a junk collector living in a trailer in the woods in St. Amable; Côté’s unintrusive camera lingers on the cramped, detritus-strewn spaces of his world, yet miraculously never objectifies the gleaner existing among these abandoned car parts, clocks, books, baby carriages, computer monitors, and general heaps of scrap. Colmor comes across not as a wily woodsman rejecting life’s modern comforts, nor a Thoreauvian poet of nature, but rather as a man living from one matter-of-fact day to the next (which he makes explicit in a delightful monologue describing his surprisingly staid weekly routine at home and in the nearby towns—one of many unexpected discoveries: he’s a Chinese food fan). He goes about his daily wanderings and chores (at one point drinking from the same mug with which he feeds a houseplant), with Côté capturing them in loving detail.
It soon becomes ever more apparent that Côté’s decidedly anti-vérité approach to filming Colmor, with its careful compositions, would require the man at their center to be not only a willing camera subject but also a necessary part of a highly constructed mise-en-scène. But just as we begin to wonder whether Côté’s means of eliciting an alleged reality are more than a little suspect, the film fades out on a commonly lovely image of Colmor on a dirt road and fades up to entirely different “reality.” It would be unfair to spoil just exactly what happens, but let us just say that it involves a whole new cast of “characters,” interlopers whose presence wouldn’t be abnormal in a Harmony Korine film, and we suddenly hear Mahler on the soundtrack where before there was only the occasional birdcall. Yet Côté’s film functions as something of a corrective to Korine’s blatant grotesquerie and arguable exploitation (which always excuses itself under the guise of “identifying with the other”); the outcasts here represent nothing so patronizing as “downcast beauty” or “existential, uncorrupted purity.” Rather their ostensible acting in vaguely sketched roles makes us question the parameters of cinematic “reality”: not only does this second half of the film cast sudden and unassailable doubts on the verity of everything we’ve already seen, but its very performativity (without any significant change in shooting style, I must add) brings into focus questions of its players own personal realities. Thus, in 72 short minutes our assumptions about the largely exclusionary practices of documentary and performance are exploded—or perhaps imploded.
If all this sounds heady or convoluted, the film is anything but. There’s immense pleasure to be had in simply witnessing, and the sudden shift to pseudo-narrative makes for a bracing shift of expectation, even producing something like a catharsis. Carcasses is perhaps only superficially about the effluvium of life; its real theme might be the subjectivity of reality, as it exists inside and outside of film. In retrospect, one can even view its first half as something of a parody of patient, observational documentary filmmaking routines. And then you realize it’s ok to laugh. —Michael Koresky