Canada's Top Ten Review: 'Les êtres chers'

Les êtres chers (Our Loved Ones)
(Canada, 102 min.)
Written and directed by Anne Émond
Starring: Maxim Gaudette, Karelle Tremblay, Valérie Cadieux
Karelle Tremblay in Les êtres chers
Les Films Séville

Writer/director Anne Émond offers a valuable lesson in forgiveness and of letting go of the past with her wonderful sophomore feature Les êtres chers. (The film is known internationally as Our Loved Ones, but theatres here still bill it by its French title.) The film marks Émond’s follow-up project to her provocative 2011 debut Nuit #1, which has quite a following of fans but isn’t one for the prudish. Even the few cinephiles who aren’t major fans of Nuit #1 are bound to sing the praises of this up-and-coming director. Émond once again brings a sparse and intimate film that intuitively uses space, place, and, especially, time to envelope the audience in the world of her characters. This decades-spanning family drama is a lovely, subtle, and poignant film.

Les êtres chers calls to mind Olivier Assayas’s Summer Hours with its understated portrait of family tensions that simmer throughout the years. The film feels at once both European and distinctly Quebecois with its languid style, episodic pacing, and slice-of-life portrait of rural life. Les êtres chers begins its journey in the small town of Bas-St-Laurent, just on the coast of the St. Lawrence River, in 1978. Émond marks the family’s history by tragedy as a family patriarch hangs from a rope in the basement of the clan’s home. “It’s a heart attack,” they tell everyone, including the late man’s son David (Maxim Gaudette from Incendies), in a lie that has enormous consequences for this family that doesn’t speak plainly often enough.

David grows up quickly in the absence of his father and Les êtres chers shows how fleetingly time flies as Émond flashes years forward with a quick cut. The film deftly moves from an image of sorrow to one of celebration as David returns to the family home and meets Marie (Valérie Cadieux). Cut to a few years later and they’re together with a daughter.

That daughter grows up to be the true star of Les êtres chers as the film turns its eye from David to his daughter Laurence (Corbo’s Karelle Tremblay). Laurence lives a normal life, growing up in a small town with summers in the sun and a pet turkey. (As all kids do, eh?) She matures and lands a boyfriend in her childhood chum, and life’s all rosy being the apple of her father’s eye.

Music, a passion she inherits from her father, plays a significant role in Laurence’s life. Laurence enjoys old cassettes with her friends as Émond creates the soundtrack to this young girl’s life with a mix of Elliott Smith songs that the broader audience might remember and a smattering of tunes that only the Quebeckers in the room will recognize. One of these latter songs assumes a thematic current to the film as David plays a song on his guitar three times for his family. It’s a song about an old tree, which at first sounds sweet and cheesy as he croons it for Marie one year after they meet. The song then becomes ironic as it plays again years later, on the radio this time, and this hit song that David jokingly claims as his own reframes him as a sad man desperate to be happy. Émond only gives the audience snippets of the song, but Gaudette uses the few bars to convey the full scale of David’s depression across the years.

Third, and finally, he performs it at length. The words, once hopeful, are now sad. David’s hair is greyer and his face is wearier, and Les êtres chers shows the audience how little they understand a man they think they know. Gaudette is very strong as a simple, yet complicated man ravaged by the endless ordinariness of his life.

As the seasons change and David’s days grow darker, the film does too as Émond deftly and ambitiously shifts tone and perspective. However hard or discomforting it may be to watch the erosion of a man who seems so happy and full of life when Les êtres chers first introduces him, David’s emotional struggle ultimately lets the viewer relate quite strongly to Laurence. Émond captures the strength of the relationship between the daughter and her father with subtle instances of family time (making dolls), betrayal (reading a diary), and that sweetly childlike mix of embarrassment/pride (friends discovering David’s cassette of hunting noises) that shows how dearly this girl loves her father. The bound is strong, yet the more Laurence sees herself in her father, the more she must actively choose to look at the world through different eyes.

There’s light to be had in the film, however. Les êtres chers draws upon the power of the landscape and its stillness against the soft golden light that creeps across the St. Lawrence. (The natural hue begs the Summer Hours comparison as much as the family drama does.) Framed delicately with a strong sense of roots and character, Laurence sees that the sun also rises in the hours after hard times. Tremblay gives a revelatory performance as she brings Laurence to life across the years of this family drama. Émond smartly tailors the film so that the actresses evolves in tandem with her character, encountering tougher and more intimately challenging material as her character crosses pivotal milestones throughout her youth.

Les êtres chers is subtly directed to guide the audience through a range of emotions as they experience love, loss, and life walking side by side this young girl. The film smoothly tackles a sweeping canvas of family affairs without ever hitting the slightest note of sentimentality Émond shows remarkable emotional restraint while creating characters for whom one cares about deeply. Les êtres chers is one of those films that slowly, quietly, creeps up and floors you with its warm embrace.

Les êtres chers screened in Toronto as part of the Canada’s Top Ten festival and screens at additional cities to come.