Even more so than the hotly-tipped, much anticipated big-ticket movies, one of the true delights of a film festival is rolling the dice and seeing something you know nothing about. Going to see a picture that’s under the radar, that doesn’t yet have buzz, and you don’t even know the logline for, and could really be anything. Sure, sometimes you’ll end up with a borderline unwatchable, relentlessly grim disaster. But sometimes you’ll stumble across something wonderful. And so it was a couple of nights ago with “Tu Dors, Nicole” (or “You’re Sleeping, Nicole“), the new film from Québécois helmer Stéphane Lafleur, who’s directed two previous, relatively little-seen features, but is probably best known as the editor behind 2011’s Oscar-nominated “Monsieur Lazhar.” We went in totally blind, barely even remembering the title, and mainly because it happened to be on next at the venue we were already at (it was playing as part of Cannes’ Directors Fortnight). And as it turns out, we wouldn’t have missed it for the world: it’s a comedy that comes across as a sort of French-Canadian take on “Frances Ha,” but also stands as its own unique, and equally brilliant, beast.
The titular Nicole (Julianne Cote) is in her early twenties, not all that long out of college, and she’s having trouble sleeping. Working in a large charity store, she’s looking after her parents’ house for the summer, which would be more of a novelty if she didn’t live there too. Nevertheless, she’s looking forward, with best friend Veronique (Catherine St-Laurent), to taking advantage of having the place to herself. Except that her older brother Remi (Marc-Andre Gronin, from “C.R.A.Z.Y” and “Goon“) has the same idea, and has set up shop with his band—expectant father Pat (Francis La Haye) and JF (Simon Larouche), the latest in a long string of drummers—in the hopes of recording a demo. Armed with a new credit card, the girls book a trip to Iceland, and prepare to sit out the summer.
It’s not the most plot-heavy of films, dancing from skit-like episode to episode, a structure reminiscent of the aforementioned “Frances Ha,” a parallel further underlined by the black-and-white photography (if anything the 35mm work here, by photographer Sara Mishara, is even better than in Noah Baumbach‘s film). There are also echoes of “Ghost World” in the central relationship between the two girls, and of plenty of other indie comedies, but the film never feels derivative, repackaging its elements into something new.
Part of that is down to an absurdist, almost surreal streak closer to Kaurismaki than anything listed above: one stand-out running gag involves Martin (Godefroy Reding), a 10-year-old boy whose voice (lent by Alexis Lefebvre) has broken early, and so now thinks he stands a chance with his former babysitter Nicole as a result. It initially feels like an odd, throwaway joke, but over time becomes more and more crucial, as the wants-to-be-older-than-his-years Martin is set in contrast with Nicole, who’s petrified by the concept of adulthood to the extent of insomnia.
The use of Martin is a microcosm for the film as a whole: initially appearing sweet, if slight, before revealing hidden depths. It’s hardly the first film to investigate the ennui of post-college twentysomethings, but it’s one of the richest. Nicole isn’t just listless, she’s borderline depressed and kind of self-destructive, a fact that the film only gradually ekes out across Cote’s remarkably accomplished performance. Nicole’s relationships in the film are expertly captured, from her bond with her brother, highlighting the very particular bond between siblings who are a decade apart, to the starting-to-crumble friendship with Veronique, to her flirtations with JF. This all informs our knowledge of her, and the result is an entirely complete character study of someone we love, but like the other characters, can be frustrated by.
This all makes it sound like much heavier going than it actually is, but Lafleur maintains a bouncy, consistently funny tone that you’d describe as featherlight, were there not real weight grounding it all. It’s a near-miraculous trick, and evidence of the immense talent on display here: he has a real talent for making comedy work visually, and as you might expect from a former editor, a sense not just for landing a joke, but for creating a unique and distinctive rhythm.
On paper, “Tu Dors Nicole” sounds generic (if I’d known the synopsis going in, I might well have skipped it), but it’s executed with such charm and skill in every gorgeous frame that I walked out completely and totally smitten. It’s a film that deserves to find an audience much wider than just at Cannes, and rest assured that we’ll be keeping a very close eye on what Lafleur is up to down the line. [A]