Teetering on the Edge with Suzanne

Sitting on the Edge of Marlene
(Canada, 92 min.)
Written and directed by Ana Valine
Starring: Suzanne Clément, Paloma Kwiatkowski and Callum Keith Rennie
Suzanne Clément is Marlene Bell in Sitting on the Edge of Marlene, an Entertainment One release.

Suzanne Clément does a whole lot of acting in Sitting on the Edge of Marlene and it’s pretty darn spectacular. The Mommy star finds a ferocious vehicle for her dramatic chops in this promising feature debut by writer/director Ana Valine. Performances as big, dynamic, and full of life as Clément’s Marlene are often of the love-it-or-leave-it variety, but Clément’s bold and gutsy turn as the phony baloney mama is a fascinating performance. It’s one of the best performances yet from an actress who continually surprises.

Clément stars as Marlene, the out-of-control alcoholic who lives day-by-day in a downward spiral. The eye of Marlene’s turbulent hurricane is her daughter Sammie (Paloma Kwiatkowski), a sixteen-year-old who dreams of death, escape, and something that resembles a normal life. Marlene’s a hustler who long perfected the art of the quick con, but she never planned the long one. Marlene isn’t the best parent that Sammie could ask for—she’s a terrible mother, even by the most generous and forgiving of standards—but her life is such a tragic and self-destructive wreck that it’s hard not to sympathize with Marlene just as much as one feels for Sammie.

Marlene and Sammie scrape by as a mother-daughter team of grifters working in cahoots with Freddy (a cool Callum Keith Rennie), a friend of ambiguous relations to Marlene and her husband, Sam, who’s currently in the slammer. Marlene’s game only works when she’s fully loaded or high on pills and, thanks primarily to Clément’s seductive calculations, she’s a convincing charlatan—a fun flirt who verges so far on the edge of being a floozy that all the men in the game disarm themselves to her trappings and let the con work its charm. Well, the suckers fall for her, anyways.

Seen through the eyes of Sammie, however, the only person Marlene seems capable of fooling is herself. Sammie grows restless worrying about Marlene (she never calls her mom, unless she’s angry) and her destructive behaviour. Marlene flushes herself with bottles of wine and “happy pills,” usually mixing them together (sometimes with Mr. Clean and Windex), and she cavorts with questionable men in between bouts of shoplifting for outlet haute couture and shoes that don’t fit. Sammie knows that their time together is running out, so she starts trying to work the cons while also working her way out by finding new allies in the Jesus Camp/roller disco down the street. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene is one of those films that the viewer instantly knows is not going to end well.

Valine adapts the novella The Trouble with Marlene by Billie Livingston in this challenging and dynamic character study. Valine, who developed this project after scooping the Director’s Chair Feature Film Award at the Women in Film Festival in Vancouver with a hand from “director mentor” Denys Arcand, shows ample promise at daring the audience to look at unlikable characters with compassion. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene challenges audiences to find the humanity in lowlifes and their dreams of better days of which they both feel cheated. Marlene knows no act other than the seductress and the role lets Clément show off her chops with as much gusto as she’s relished in the films of Xavier Dolan. Marlene seems more out of control when sober, but she’s truly volcanic when drunk, and Clément brews a tempestuous performance that lets Marlene hide her fear and vulnerability behind a stormy haze of excess. This smartly layered performance leaves the character open to viewer: is Marlene as phoney on the inside as she is on the outside, a purebred hustler, dangerously mentally ill, or some combination of all three?

Valine keeps the characters compelling even when Marlene veers into messy twists, but with a character as akin to a train wreck as Marlene, some disarray is fitting and necessary. The role calls to mind iconic parts like Gena Rowlands in Gloria or Tilda Swinton’s foul-mouth tramp Julia, and Valine shows a budding auteur’s hand at creating a compelling film around conflicting characters. Where Clément is fierce, Kwiatkowski is quietly captivating. Sammie barely resembles her own character when the film begins, and it makes sense that she wouldn’t, since Marlene sees her only as an accessory to the latest grift at hand. As Marlene flies further out of control, and Clément becomes increasingly unpredictable, Sammie grows with the power of a true heroine and Kwiatkowski grounds the film with her unwavering composure. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene shrewdly puts the mother-daughter con artists on a rickety seesaw that sees power and control bounce up and down from one con to the other, but the real target in the end becomes the mother with the young protégé sharply gaining the balance. Sitting on the Edge of Marlene is a taut balancing act, especially because Clément keeps us so unpredictably on edge.

Rating: ★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Sitting on the Edge of Marlene is now available on iTunes from eOne Films.