Movie Review: Death of a Ladies Man
Matthew Bissonnette’s new feature is not based on the famed Montreal poet-Lothario’s writing, but it finds the same bruised skies and ice-covered steeples that inspired his work — and in the process, gives Gabriel Byrne a clean shot at creative narcissism.
Death of a Ladies Man
Starring Gabriel Byrne, Suzanne Clement, Antoine Olivier Pilon, Karelle Tremblay, Brian Gleeson, Jessica Pare, Joel Bissonnette
Directed by Matthew Bissonnette
Running time: Not yet rated
Rating: 1 hr 40 mins
Available March 12, 2021 on VOD, Apple TV, iTunes, VIFF connect
By Katherine Monk
While the title of Matthew Bissonnette’s latest film conjures the cover image of Leonard Cohen’s 1977 album of the same name, Death of a Ladies Man is not a movie about Montreal’s much-laurelled poet-Lothario. Sure, it’s full of references to sex and song, and it was largely shot in Montreal — where Cohen sauntered down St. Lawrence and snarfed smoked meat at Schwartz’s — but for all the similarities and in-your-face inspirations drawn from Cohen’s catalogue, Death of a Ladies’ man is a stand-alone character study of an aging academic… who just happens to identify with Leonard Cohen.
Gabriel Byrne plays Samuel O’Shea, aging roué and burnt out poetry professor riding the ripples of his earlier career. He’s been a womanizing asshole most of his life, but at the moment we burst into his self-starring narrative, the wheel of karma is rolling backward — stream-rolling his self-esteem, prompting an excavation of his mound-filled backyard. The ghosts of his past are digging themselves out, and the first one to break free is his current wife, Linda (Carolina Bartczak).
Coming home to the sounds of sex, Samuel finds Linda in bed with another man. The marriage ends in a staccato exchange, and for the next 90 minutes, we watch Samuel drown in a potent concoction of his own creation: an alcohol-fuelled delirium that forces him to face his shortcomings as a father, as a husband, and as a man.
These movies about older men experiencing a crisis of conscience are a staple in every movie tradition as generation after generation attempts to make peace with the previous one, but Bissonnette brings some freshness to the exercise by injecting Samuel with just enough humour to temper the self-indulgent self-loathing. We can thank Byrne’s Irish-eyed twinkle for animating the character with a gentle heart, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get all the bitterness and blood that comes with the genre, especially when sons and fathers inhabit the darker corners of every remembered room.
Samuel keeps seeing his death father (Brian Gleeson), and because he’s a literary man, he’s able to sew all the Shakespearean threads into his own little tapestry of experience, quoting the Bard and the ‘Danish play’, and using his creative power to normalize what — for the audience — is not normal at all.
In addition to seeing his own father, Samuel also starts to see tiger-headed transgendered servers at the local cafe, hockey players doing ice-dance couples choreography (the best part of the movie, eat your heart out Blades of Glory), and beautiful women who inevitably fall for his slick moves and literary banter.
Yes, it’s all familiar pastiche that feels like Kingsley Amis redux when it’s funny and pathetic, but there’s a twitch of novelty that keeps tickling the viewer thanks to Byrne’s presence because he’s always lost in the given moment. We’re able to float with the character as he’s pulled down the river. We don’t even judge him because he’s too busy judging himself, and that, too, is an extension of his own narcissism — which forever puts the character at arms’s length and renders him a curious exhibit in the museum of masculine ego.
Yes, it’s all familiar pastiche that feels like Kingsley Amis redux when it’s funny and pathetic, but there’s a twitch of novelty that keeps tickling the viewer thanks to Byrne’s presence because he’s always lost in the given moment.
Fortunately, even Samuel seems to be amused and quietly confounded by his constant need for conquering women and destroying the lives of those he loves most. He’s putting himself through the ringer, but he’s on the gentle cycle — hand washing his delicate ego, reminding us that even the most self-destructive people can be unfathomably vain, arrogant and self-possessed.
It’s a paradox that defines Samuel, and Bissonnette shows us how it inevitably defines the people around him by default — because for every piece Samuel keeps to himself, he’s denying a loved one a chunk of something they crave.
The three acts Bissonnette creates owe much to Cohen’s archive, but at the end of the day, Death of a Ladies Man feels like a loving homage to the Canadian icon — not because of the musical vignettes that use Cohen’s melodies and lyrics, but because the whole film is steeped in the essence of Montreal, the smell of wood-baked bagels on a cold day, the warmth of a Crescent Street bar on a fall day, the bruised winter skies filled with the sight of cross-topped steeples, and the linguistic potage of English and French that ensures everyone gets at least part of the sentence.
In another pair of creative hands, this could have felt ‘romantic’ or ‘nostalgic’ — but the beauty of Bissonnette’s creation is just how beautifully it denies reverence or idolatry, and reminds us that St. Urban’s Horseman never successfully flushed a dump at a dinner party, and human beings are designed to fail.
Main image: Gabriel Byrne (Samuel) and Michael Hearn (Frankenstein) in Death of a Ladies’ Man. Photographer: Sébastien Raymond DEATH OF A LADIES’ MAN Motion Picture © 2020 DOALM Ontario Inc., Films DOALM Quebec Inc. and Port Pictures Ltd.
THE EX-PRESS, March 1, 2021