A Professor Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence

Diary of an Old Man (Le journal d’un vieil homme)
(Canada, 82 min.)
Written and directed by Bernard Émond
Starring: Paul Savoie, Marie-Ève Pelletier, Marie-Thérèrse Fortin, Ariane Legault, Patrick Drelot
Les Films Séville

Don’t confuse the slice-of-life Canadian drama Diary of an Old Man with the soon to be released R-rated comedy Dirty Grandpa. Diary of an Old Man has a co-ed or two in its story of a wise old professor ruminating on the end of his life, but, unlike the raunchy Robert De Niro flick, this drama doesn’t have any randy old men. This sedate drama from Québécois grand maître Bernard Émond (All That You Possess) rewards with its contemplative and introspective portrait of a life (un)lived as illustrious and terminally ill academic Nicholas (Paul Savoie) wonders if his everything was worth it as he approaches the end. Call it A Professor Sat on a Bench Reflecting on Existence.

Diary of an Old Man adapts the short story “A Boring Story” by Anton Chekov and while impatient viewers might use the title of the source material to make an ironic joke, others might find that Émond’s latest film rewards with its restraint. (Oddly enough, it’s the second Québécois film in a year to tackle Chekov with a similar tenor following Gurov and Anna.) The film features Nicholas’s thoughts, expressed as meditative diary entries, in voiceover as scenes reveal his departure from the university where he lectures as an authority on medicine. In a scene that evokes memories of last year’s Still Alice, the reputable professor stumbles on his words during one of his usually great orations. A career ends without much pomp.

The doctor gives Nicholas about one year to live and Émond subtly uses the changes of seasons to mark the man’s dwindling days. Nicholas uses the time he has left to ponder his achievements. He holds on to his accolades and as the days grow colder, he realizes that the merits of his life are relatively futile. He feels disconnected from his wife and daughter; his passion for teaching, once great, remains in fleeting memories. His only great joy comes from his visits with his daughter Katia (Marie-Ève Pelletier), whom he adopted from a late girlfriend. Katia carries her own ghosts as she, too, ages. This fading actress struggles to look forward and she longs for her elder and mentor to guide her. However, as a man losing his grasp on his own sense of fulfilment, Nicholas no longer has the wisdom to teach the young.

“Indifference is paralysis to the soul,” Nicholas says as he recalls the great bursts of enthusiasm he had for teaching and for exciting fresh minds. Nicholas, however, remains aware of his indifference to the world to a certain degree—memories cheat him, but, overall, the coldness of the approaching winter mirrors the temperature of his soul. Diary of an Old Man tackles this short story with thoughtful tenacity as Émond keeps Nicholas at a distance—and Savoie plays the old man with measured detachment—so that the old man’s musings remain objective to the audience. The film is especially refreshing by resisting any judgement of or condescension to the younger generation, for Nicholas displays notes of optimism while observing his younger friends and family and realizing that he while is not a product of their time, he is not the right person to judge a present he fails to understand. The film doesn’t ask the viewer to like the dying man, nor does it especially beg for sympathy; rather, it creates a sense of a world slipping away without opting for nostalgia or a note of elegy. Émond’s direction is very subtle in its evocation of a life and a world that are at the end of their days.

The realism of the film carries the story as Nicholas wanders around the city and his country dwelling, and Émond lets the pull of the landscape create a sense of isolation and aimlessness. The natural palettes of the cinematography are both thoughtful and melancholic depending on the sense of fulfillment Nicholas feels as he reflects on his life. In its final scene, the wind and snow swell in one of the greyest, bleakest shots of Canadian winter one could see. It’s a chilling image of death.

Diary of an Old Man is now available on home video from eOne Films.