Violence is a thing of consequence in "Boris Without Béatrice." But while gunfire punctuates the air here, Denis Côté’s latest feature is less about bloodshed than the emotional and moral effects of a different kind of violence — that of marital and parental neglect, of indifference and self-interest. Unlike his "Vic + Flo Saw a Bear," which won the Quebecois director a Silver Bear at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival, there are no bear traps in this film: Côté, a master of mood, prefers to mete out moral comeuppance through the mere threat of it, sending one petty bourgeois heartbreaker on a path of unlikely redemption.
In provincial Quebec, Boris Malinovsky (James Hyndman) cuts an idiosyncratic figure, a typical Côté protagonist. Wiry frame, naked scalp, awkward height: Boris struts through life as if he has eternal right of way. He scoffs at the harpist playing in the corner of the plush store where he’s purchasing a new suit, and cuts the young assistant short when she tries to conduct a routine customer survey. He drives a black Merc and wears Hermès cufflinks ("at least $450"). He makes false promises to visit a sick factory worker he employs, and he’s having an affair with his colleague, Helga (Dounia Sichov).
All of this has come with a price. Boris has drifted from his daughter Justine (an excellent Laetitia Isambert-Denis), and from his own mother Pauline (Louise Laprade). But the most nagging concern is that Boris’s wife, Béatrice (Simone Élise-Gerard), has taken ill. A minister in the Canadian government (she is "essential and priceless," says Bruce LaBruce in a cameo as the Prime Minister), Béatrice is bed-bound, and for the past five years has required a live-in caretaker: Klara (Isolda Dychauk), a pale-skinned redhead at whose backside Boris sneaks stealthy looks — and on whom he has an inevitable charm.
Another dalliance ensues — though not until after a baffling encounter with a nameless man credited only as The Stranger (Denis Lavant), a benign menace who clearly has an agenda. Appearing in a golden Mahajara sherwhani, this butter-wouldn’t-melt sage has his fair share of qualms with Boris’s lifestyle choices, and wastes no time in castigating him for them — firstly in a nighttime rendezvous in a nearby quarry, secondly by intimating a godlike omnipresence through some elaborate speaker system in the trees, his honeycomb French hollering out to Boris like a mocking roar.
"Even the strongest are brought to their knees," says The Stranger. Later repeated by a more earthly surrogate, the refrain rings out like a caution-cum-threat. He tasks Boris with putting the work back in: to be a husband, a father, and a son once more. "The reward for your effort will be Béatrice’s health," The Stranger says.
We’ve been here before. As one character says later on, "there are many stories that illustrate man’s vanity and excess" — though few narratives have positioned themselves so explicitly about the nature and structures of redemption rather than redemption itself. Côté often frames his protagonists in such precise compositions that the world they inhabit is inescapably artificial and symbolic, rather than dramatic.
The writer-director gleans what antagonism he can from his scenarios. One example sees Boris visiting his daughter only to fall foul of her prankster housemates — a passive-aggressive twosome dressed as Orestes and Elektra and openly keen on unsettling their guest. No real reason is given as to why these twerps act in the manner they do — but as avatars for a suspicious-cum-hostile world, they fit right into the film’s coldly precise, largely colorless universe. (A brief interlude through a car-boot sale adds a welcome, even startling edge of doc-like spontaneity.)
References to Greek mythology are expanded upon in the film’s latter stages. If it wasn’t already clear, comparisons are drawn between Boris and Tantalus, the mythical figure who was invited to Olympus by Zeus only to be banished for bad behavior and his "nasty habit of stealing things." Eventually punished for greater and grislier sins, Tantalus was made to stand for eternity in shallow water with a branch of fruit just out of his reach. Boris’s own sin, The Stranger tells him, is hubris: his punishment is a tantalizing but vapid existence.
The Stranger himself vaguely echoes Maurice Conchis, the well-versed Greek trickster behind the rug-pulling in John Fowles’s 1965 novel "The Magus," whose working title was "The Godgame." That work also was about a pompous protagonist undergoing a painful process of self-reflection. But Fowles had his protagonist, Nicholas Urfe, narrate — ensuring a certain degree of sympathy that ultimately strengthened the emotional backbone underpinning the book’s more fantastical elements.
Côté, in comparison, offers no such structural guidance. His characters are selfish ciphers for the most part — none more so than Boris himself. Played by Hyndman, a fat-free cross between Mark Strong and James Cromwell (gaunt face, spindly construction), our protagonist is decidedly unsympathetic. His attractiveness to co-worker Helga and to Klara remains a mystery. There’s scant evidence of his charm — which makes his belated epiphany into a wider, more caring perspective a little unconvincing. Perhaps that’s the point.
"Boris Without Beatrice" premiered last week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.