Doesn't Stir the Heart

The Heart is What Dies Last (C’est le cœur qui meurt en dernier)
(Canada, 105 min.)
Dir. Alexis Durand-Brault, Writ. Gabriel Sabourin
Starring: Gabriel Sabourin, Denise Filiatrault, Paul Doucet, Geneviève Rioux, Céline Bonnier, Sophie Lorain
Denise Filiatrault in The Heart is What Dies Last
Les Films Séville
This year’s totally random Canadian Screen Award nominee for Best Picture is The Heart is What Dies Last. It’s titled less awkwardly as C’est le coeur quit meurt en dernier in its native français, but presenters probably won’t be stumbling over syntax while ripping open the envelopes. It’s a fine, decently acted drama, but nothing to make the heart stir.

The film adapts a novel of the same name by Robert Lalonde and writer/star Gabriel Sabourin (Miraculum, Amsterdam) ambitiously charts a family saga about the ties that bind between parents and their children. It’s a bit convoluted, not to mention needlessly complicated with its fractured narrative that jumps back and forth between past and present. The tale of the past is better than the one in the present, though, and the film struggles with spurts and sparks as Sabourin’s character Julien reconciles his history with his mother, played with extraordinary life by Sophie Lorain in the flashback scenes and with curmudgeonly sharpness by Denise Filiatrault in the present day story.

Julien faces a difficult request when he visits his mother after eight years of estrangement. Now in her 80s and living in a restricted floor of a hospital, she approaches the end of her life. Her mind fails her far more quickly than her relatively healthy body does, though, so she asks Julien to make good on the distance between them by helping her end her life. He doesn’t take the task lightly.

The Heart is What Dies Last gets its name from the novel that Julien publishes during the film and for which he receives the Governor General’s Award for literature. The book dissects Julien’s troubled childhood and the turbulent relationship between his parents that wedged his life in half. One may therefore read the flashback either as literal glimpses into history or as embellished recollection of the past, but seen through young Julien’s eyes, the film shows fleeting glimpses of a mother alight with happiness (think dancing around the kitchen à la Laura Dern in Wild) or crying tearfully in the bathroom over another night alone. His mother doesn’t deny the narrative when she sees it, but it revives memories she long tried to forget.

The performances generally overcome the convolutions of the ensemble drama with the Filiatrault and Lorain offering different shades of a woman whose joie de vivre tragically snuffed itself out across the years. Sabourin is also compelling with a character who doesn’t ask much for sympathy, while The Passion of Augustine’s Céline Bonnier captivates in a small performance as a striking woman whom Julien discards for his pleasure—a trait presumably inherited from the father we hear so much about.

The Heart is What Dies Last also lands a great supporting performance from the city of Ottawa when Julien takes his mother to the National Capital for the Governor General’s Awards. Too few Canadian films make use of the city, and it’s wonderful to see a production set its emotional climax on a skate down the Rideau Canal. Director Alexis Durand-Brault has a wonderful eye for the washes of light and darkness that draw out the gothic and romantic elements that live side by side in the city. They complement the love and heartache that glide side by side in the relationship between Julien and his mother. Her twilight skate down the ice offers a hint at the greatness lost in the complicated story. Oddly enough, it's the one scene where the coldness of the film works to its advantage.

The Heart is What Dies Last is available on home video.