Writers: Matt Bissonnette and Bobby Theodore
Directed by: Matt Bissonnette
A lightweight indie with a film great at its centre, Death of a Ladies Man sees Gabriel Byrne return to the screen. Byrne plays Samuel O’Shea; a Montreal-based English professor with a drinking problem. His love life is also complex – and about to get more so. On a hurried trip back to his apartment, he finds his younger wife in bed with another man. The marriage – not O’Shea’s first – is over. He bemoans his fate over lunch with his son Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Even when Layton breaks some big news – he is “maybe in love, but definitely gay” – O’Shea steers the conversation back to himself.
The film, written and directed by Matt Bissonnette, details a life unravelling. O’Shea – a practised ladies’ man – is no longer catching the eye of young women. His assured masculinity has had its time. He turns up drunk to classes; his unimpressed students watch him retch into a waste basket.
But life takes a darker turn when O’Shea begins to experience hallucinations, including seeing his dead father (Brian Gleeson). He is diagnosed with a Grade 4 brain tumour, and has months left. O’Shea decides to patch up his relationship with his kids and write the “Great North American Novel”. He travels back to Ireland
We think we know how this story goes – lots of Irish poetry, Byrne raging against the dying of the light. But Bissonnette’s vision is cluttered with Sam’s hallucinations. The film attempts drama and comedy, but it is too faint for one and too serious for the other.
Not surprisingly, the female characters are thinly sketched. They are feeders / lovers / daughters, who operate in Gabriel’s world to provide comfort and care. Even a more modern character, Sam’s daughter Josee (Karelle Tremblay) as a feminist drama student, doesn’t hold up. Her work is meant to be confronting – Sam dismisses it as one-note. Bearing in mind Sam’s relationship with women (very much plural), no attempt is made to dig into the layers of misogyny that colour his life.
Byrne, who lends the film much-needed gravitas, is underserved by a screenplay that doesn’t know what it wants to be. Some of the instances of magic realism are so tonally mismatched, they become uncomfortable and ridiculous to watch. Bissonnette’s intention is that these moments italicise high points of drama. Even when Sam’s hallucinations take on a sunny hue, their uplifting quality never quite reaches us. We have spent too long in the shade.
The film does find its feet on occasions. Bissonnette wisely uses Byrne’s extraordinary voice, and where Byrne recites poetry, these are the moments of heightened reality that the film searches for. Death of a Ladies Man doesn’t need surrealism, it just needs Byrne at his finest. While the gentle comedy does work (and Byrne is largely responsible for that), the drama just doesn’t adhere itself. There is a simpler, cleaner film beneath the hyperbole. It’s a shame that Bissonnette didn’t scale down, and find his truth, deeper in the story.
Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Death of a Ladies’ Man on Digital Download 25 July.