In the wide gamut of human experience, there is probably nothing so devastating as to lose a child. And if that child had disappeared a decade prior to his eight-year-old body being found following the confession of a pedophile to his murder? It’s an incomprehensible level of pain, one that no one would wish on a living soul. But it’s pain summoned by Francois Delisle‘s “Chorus,” which unblinkingly, in austere and beautiful black-and-white imagery, examines this precise situation from the point of view of the emotionally shattered parents. With its considered pace, and some extraordinary performances that never feel less than utterly authentic to whichever extended moment is being picked apart in magnified detail, it’s a film that feels entirely, envelopingly truthful. And therefore it feels absolutely terrible.
Opening with the aforementioned confession, the film could, at the outset, be a more procedural or mystery-based story. An inmate unburdens himself to a detective with the Montreal police, narrating in halting, excruciating sentences, the events of a day, ten years before, when he struck up a conversation with an eight-year-old boy and offered him a ride. “If he hadn’t got in, I would have let him go,” says the murderer before announcing “His name was Hugo.” But with that, we cut to Hugo’s mother, Irene (a remarkable, raw but contained Fanny Mallette), a professional classical singer rehearsing a beautiful piece of medieval church music in her small choir. Not for the last time, Delisle, who acts as his own screenwriter, editor and cinematographer, in addition to directing, holds on Irene as she sings; these are the last moments of her Not Knowing. She mentions later that, after Hugo’s disappearance ten years prior, in the wake of which she and her husband Christophe split up, she started to believe he was dead, but the news that his body has been recovered is the first confirmation she has received. She calls Christophe (Sebastien Ricard, similarly excellent), who has been living an aimless, day-to-day life as an odd-jobs man in a beach community in Mexico. He flies back to Montreal for a few days, staying at his father’s place, while he and Irene try to find in their sundered relationship the strength to finally lay their boy to rest.
Delisle’s instinct is to follow the couple minutely, incrementally observing a reunion that stirs up as many painful memories of their broken love as of their stolen child. And he does this in a very linear fashion, only very rarely breaking from the simple documenting of these few days to show a fragment of a dream or a memory of Christophe’s. Hugo never appears — it’s an unusual, but very effective, formal decision not to go the standard, but rather exploitative route of flashbacks to happier times. Instead, we stay with Christophe and Irene as they go to pick up Hugo’s remains (a shockingly small pile of bones), hold a funeral, collect boxes of his things from the storage locker they’ve been in for years, and finally give them away.
These immaculate performances, and this unadorned approach, give us an almost unbearable level of empathy with the central pair, especially Irene. Whether negotiating the concern or the religiosity of her mother (an elfin Genevieve Bujold), or trying to search her own soul, as well as Christophe’s, for something to build on between them again, there’s rarely a moment when we do not understand precisely what she is thinking and feeling. It’s rare to see intense grief portrayed with such a lack of self-pity, and it makes us feel for that character even more.
So much so, in fact, that there are choices of Delisle’s we could have done without. The voiceover narration is used very sparingly, but could have been discarded altogether; some of the scenes are held for so long in an unvarying tone of bleakness that they teeter dangerously close to overkill; and the single scene where Irene goes to visit the killer’s mother in a rest home feels like a rare narrative misstep — it’s oddly out of character for her, and its dramatic potential is left largely unmined.
Perhaps the main reason I’m not sure about wholly embracing such a well-made, well-acted, intelligently delivered film is that, as much as I am a great believer in the cathartic power of fiction, and the value of any story that connects us to a truthful human experience, I cannot quite work out what function is fulfilled by “Chorus” summoning such a grotesque tragedy, and making us live through it all. Even the tiny uptick of maybe-hope at the end, illustrating the unexpected consolation of rock music, does not feel like it resolves anything — in fact, it’s somehow sadder still to see how briefly happy they are. It’s an entirely tasteful film, yet there’s something almost fetishistic about describing intense loss in such exquisite detail. Observing a finely-wrought filigree of despair, “Chorus” is remarkably effective at making you feel something you already know to be true. But you may not be quite sure why, or, at the end of this 95 minutes of extreme empathy and identification, what to do with all this useless grief. [B]
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