Beginning with an unsettling, long-take interrogation scene, the first moments of François Delisle’s “Chorus” establish a lethally entwined triptych of souls: an incarcerated pedophile who confesses to an appalling crime, handsome but visibly haunted Christophe (Sébastien Ricard) adrift in Mexico, and Irene (Fanny Mallette), a Montreal choir singer perpetually moments away from a full-bore panic attack.
These delicately stitched, emotional telegrams reveal that Christophe and Irene are ex-lovers, estranged for a decade since their eight-year-old son vanished inexplicably. Christophe leads a dissolute life of empty sex and self-numbing habits, as seen in a jaggedly cut sequence that recalls Steve McQueen’s “Shame” as a picture of one man’s dismal sexual reality: the naked woman sleeping in his bed is replaced by a sudden vision of Christophe’s presumably dead son.
Meanwhile, the medicated and deeply depressed Irene trudges through the days, is indebted to her suppressive mother and barely exists in an austere, otherworldly Montreal in rather brutal contrast to the earthy, sexy vistas of Christophe’s Mexico. All of this is lensed in stark, sooty black-and-white by director Delisle himself, who also edits, and with a lapidary closeness.
Irene’s already tattered world implodes when she learns that police have exhumed her long-missing son’s skeletal remains. The shock forces Christophe, who has quietly been seeking revenge these past 10 years, back into her orbit and to Montreal, where together they grapple with new information that we soon understand has stemmed from the stoic confession of the opening scene.
This sort of wallowing parental grief movie — “The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby” and “Antichrist” being the subgenre’s polar extremes — risks alienating an audience completely, with its unrelentingly bleak through-line and depths-of-hell level grief cycles. Yet “Chorus,” under-the-radar Québécoise director Delisle’s sixth feature after 2013’s “The Meteor,” makes the doom and gloom palatable thanks to his empathetic lead performances and silvery, hypnotic cinematography. This overwhelmingly emotional tragedy’s saving grace is ultimately its visual wonder, which lifts the film out of deep-dwelling misery for its own sake — and into sublime, even transcendent aesthetic heights.
A Sundance premiere playing Berlin’s Panorama section throughout the week, “Chorus” is that rare tearjerker that earns its right to be one: profoundly, unsentimentally sad, and with a bewitching beauty to supply ample doses of hope.