Spectacular Ensemble in Tale of Faith and Fate

(Canada, 110 min.)
Dir. Daniel Grou, Writ. Gabriel Sabourin
Starring: Xavier Dolan, Marilyn Castonguay, Robin Aubert, Anne Dorval, Louise Turcot, Julien Poulin, Jean-Nicolas Verreault, Gabriel Sabourin, Gilbert Sicotte.
Xavier Dolan and Marilyn Castonguay in Miraculum.
Photo: Les Films Séville.
A flurry of excitement is boosting Canadian film ever since Mommy premiered at Cannes in May, so eager beavers will undoubtedly want to see Miraculum, which is this year’s other major Canadian film starring the hot director/star team of Mommy, Xavier Dolan and Anne Dorval. Dolan and Dorval share not a single frame of the film, but they both give exceptionally strong performances within the solid cast of Québécois actors who fill the roles of this intricately plotted drama. Miraculum sees Dolan and Dorval within two separate time-lines in this multi-narrative kaleidoscope that sees fates intersect with one devastating plane crash. It’s an elaborate drama in the vein of Crash and 21 Grams, and the powerhouse performances are reason alone to see this thoughtful film.

The uptick in threads and characters marks Miraculum as a notably ambitious effort from director Daniel Grou (aka Podz), the director of intimate dramas like L’affaire Dumont. Grou, working from a script by Gabriel Sabourin (Amsterdam) that shows a considerable token of influence from Paul Haggis and Alejandro González Iñárritu, offers another haunting character study despite the sprawling ensemble. Miraculum zeroes in on one character, Julie (played by Dumont’s Marilyn Castonguay), who inhabits the converging point of the film as past meets present.

Julie is a nurse at the hospital where survivors are taken the night of the crash. Called in to discover that the accident left only one lone survivor, the religiously minded nurse takes quit an interest in the anonymous survivor who is left covered with burns despite the escape. The patient puts Julie’s own faith and heart into a tailspin, for the accident forces her to confront the looming death of her fiancé Étienne (Dolan) who is dying of leukemia. Julie and Étienne are both Jehovah’s Witnesses, so their belief that blood transfusions render one impure leaves them both resigned to put faith before love. The clincher, though, is that the miracle survivor shares Julie’s blood type, so each day at the hospital challenges her to confront her beliefs and wonder if the ability to save a life trumps faith and scripture.

Leading a much different life than Julie and Étienne, however, are the many characters Miraculum introduces as potential passengers of the fateful plane crash. The crash, as the hospital staff says, is a plane that was flying for Cuba. Each subsequent thread thus brings a variety of flawed characters—all sinners under Étienne’s sermon that opens the film—and lets the audience wonder which one receives salvation.
Anne Dorval in Miraculum. Photo: Les Films Séville.

Among the doomed passengers is Simon (Gabriel Sabourin), a drug mule hell bent on redemption. Simon receives the largest role after Julie and much of Miraculum watches him writhing in the bathroom as he atones for his sins by plopping out one condom full of drugs after another. The same hotel that houses the drug dealing also hosts a pair of adulterous employees named Raymond and Lise, played by Julien Poulin and Louise Turcot. They’re finally taking their relationship beyond scandalous infidelity, as Raymond thinks a sexy resort getaway is the best escape from their unhappy marriages. His idea for the hot weekend arises when a patron at the bar, Martin (Robin Aubert), explains that he and his wife are going to Cuba for the fourteenth year in a row. Cut to a posh suburban home where Martin’s wife, Evelyne (Anne Dorval), plods about the kitchen and downs oodles of Cuban rum before trying on bikinis, and Miraculum reveals that more than one character of the tragic ensemble needs a miracle to save them.

Grou and editor Valérie Héroux deftly navigate the convoluted narrative as Miraculum unfolds conundrums of fate, faith, and destiny as the stories approach a collision point. The temporal structure of the film remains consistently intriguing as one cut shifts one’s perception of which character gets—or maybe even deserves—the second lease on life from the crash. The film has at list two clear timelines and another exists as a kind of in-between space, for the direction and tone of the story play elements of each character arc off the other. Lingering and almost intrusively voyeuristic camerawork alternatively creates the sense that one is an unseen viewer within the action. The florid bright light in other scenes, likewise, creates an ethereal atmosphere as if some stories and characters are touched upon more gracefully than others are.

Miraculum has a host of intriguing characters and some sensationally juices roles for the cream of the crop of Québécois acting to embellish. Dolan gives arguably his best performance so far—and one that is largely physical—as Étienne holds close to faith in the face of death. Poulin and Turcot are affectionately endearing as the pair of late-blooming lovers, and the irony of their fate is one of Miraculum’s most affecting turns. Dorval delivers a series of showstopping scenes as her troubled Evelyne offers the most outwardly expressive character of the ensemble. Her powerful scenes call to mind great performances like Annette Bening in American Beauty as Evelyne searches for an escape from her unhappy marriage. (A shopping sequence is a notable tour-de-force.) The supporting cast is excellent, but the film easily belongs to Castonguay with her captivating and subtle performance. Her great performance of conflicted vulnerability and strength ties together the film’s musings on love, fate, and religion.

A film with a cast as strong as Miraculum, however, inevitably suffers from the usual disjointedness that touches films of such multi-narrative sprawl. Some characters and storylines aren’t nearly as interesting as others are, and the many threads have a looseness, rather than a cohesion, that ties them together. Miraculum simply never culminates in the kind of force or power a film needs to let the intricate plotting maximize the payoff. Crash, for better or for worse, explodes with emotion when the fates of its characters collide, but the meeting point of Miraculum is muted by loose ends and tricky convolutions.

There is simply a point in the film where the sharp editing becomes less a play on fate and chance than a conceit for emotional manipulation. Similarly, the present-tense storyline with Julie loses credibility as Miraculum reaches its climax, for it’s hard to accept that the hospital administration would consistently press an employee’s religious beliefs in the name of service. Castonguay’s performance nevertheless helps Miraculum sell the debate on faith and fate, but the turn of the film leaves one cold.

The coldness, though, might be part of the point. One character (played by Gilbert Sicotte) coolly tells Julie “If planes crash, it’s because your omnipotent god doesn’t exist” while she and a friend go door to door in an attempt to recruit the faithful. The line visibly shakes her. The man’s words then appear at the end of the film as Miraculum closes and plays the credits over eerie silence. Perhaps this tale of miracles and fate plays out in a godless world, and Miraculum puts fate in our own hands.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Miraculum is now available on home video.

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