Friday, November 20, 2015

Storytelling: Léolo

"Awaking from the kingdom of dreams is brutal. I'm an early riser."
Leo Lauzon

I recently visited Niagara Falls & Toronto and thought that it would be cool to do a post on a Canadian-made film. It was going to be The Sweet Hereafter, but since it takes place in a fictional New York community, I decided to go for a more locally-flavoured film...which is why I landed on Léolo. Spoilers: this movie is CRAZY. Like, legitimately coo-coo banana pants. Made in 1992 by writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon (the Frenchiest of French-Canadian names!), the story centers around Leo Lauzon: a young, linguistically talented boy living in the "squalid Montreal tenement" of Mile End with his lunatic family. The film deals largely with escapism and the thinly etched border between genius and insanity. That sounds all well and good, sure, but the directorial choices and narrative decisions make Léolo one bizarre tale.

No official rating, so I recommend 'R' as it contains plenty of adult material.

To deal with his family and their less-than-sane tendencies, Leo places himself into a fiction of his own creation. In it, he is the son of an Italian tomato farmer rather than a working-class industrialist who obsesses over bowel movements; he is a deep-sea treasure hunter instead of the victim of an attempted drowning at the hands of his grandfather; he is brother to an insectile queen, not a little girl fascinated with bugs. Leo—or, as he prefers to be called, Léolo—writes down all of his adventures before crumpling them up and tossing them away. They are all inevitably retrieved by the 'Word Tamer', i.e., an elderly acquaintance who the young boy rather tellingly sees as a reincarnated Don Quixote. In reality, Word Tamer is little more than an innocent voyeur who collects people's trash, reads their letters, and looks at their photographs in order to 'keep them alive' before burning the remains.

Despite his polluted genes, Léolo does not see himself as insane. Rather, he distances himself from his family and uses his written words as a sort of soft cushion between his understanding of the world and its grim realities. He wishes to be in a different place, so he puts himself there in his mind's eye. For example, whenever the object of his boyish desire—beautiful neighbor Bianca—sings, he imagines a door opening into a sunny Italian city. He is able to experience this metaphysical transportation, too, whenever he scribbles down his thoughts...though, as time goes on, he finds the act more and more difficult to achieve as he runs into the insurmountable dilemma of diminishing returns.

Looking out onto an imagined landscape of Tuscan villas.

Sometimes the audience is not kept abreast of when the story takes a turn toward the theoretical. In once instance, the narrator tells us that "My family had become characters in a fiction," and later proceeds to relate how his older brother, Fernand, changed from a scrawny, bullied kid into a muscle-builder. This transformation does actually take place (maybe) and occurs in a single revolving shot, showing Fernand working out with weights before magically turning into a suspiciously uncanny lookalike of the model on the cover of his prized fitness magazines. It is entirely possible that this all has to do with perception, since Léolo wants to believe that "So tall I will be on my brother's shoulders." The strength aspect is purely physical, though, as Fernand is much too cowardly to take on his bully even with the added brawn. It is at this point that Léolo's admiration for his brother extinguishes. This in turn makes it more difficult for him to place faith in his own stories.

Another reason as to why the audience should be
slightly incredulous concerning Fernand's sudden beefiness:
Léolo does not visibly age from the beginning to the end of the metamorphosis.

As Léolo's life starts to take its toll and—as mentioned earlier—he can no longer easily meet the solitude of his dreams, things begin to take a dark turn. No one knows about his talent apart from the Word Tamer who tries to advocate for the child by talking to his teachers (alas, to no avail). Limited by circumstance and blaming his sick grandfather for his fate, little Léolo tries to assuage his frustration by attempting to murder the old man. Things...backfire. Understandably, the boy's number one fear is being placed in the institution where nearly all of his family member are forced to reside, so he begins to contemplate a more fitting end.

Being a kid is confusing enough without having to deal with a turkey in the bathtub, so Léolo's decision to commit suicide makes a certain amount of sense. Disagree? Listen: One day when he was helping his brother collect recyclables to sell at the local plant, Léolo stumbled across a broken record. He knew it would never play again, but he kept it anyway because he loved the image on the sleeve. Later, toward the end of his life, he finds a sliver of record that perfectly matches the missing chunk. Finally, he would be able to hear the music—to make the record whole. Only...no, he couldn't. Even though he had all the parts, the object had still been broken beyond repair. He could not very well glue something like that back into place and expect it to work just like new. It was already too late. [Obvious metaphor is obvious.]

Léolo occupies the scene of the crime in a last-ditch attempt to climb his way out of his life.

Jeez. That's dark. Maybe there is a happier ending, though. Léolo's nightmare is realized when he fails to kill himself, instead simply going into a catatonic state and winding up as a vegetable in the sanitorium. "Fuck me sideways, Rachel! That's not any bloody happier!" Hmm, well, maybe not based solely upon outward appearances. Léolo has a mantra: "Because I dream, I am not." This is based on L'Avalée des avalés by Quebec-based playwright/novelist Réjean Ducharme, who is best known for early works that involve themes relating to the "rejection of the adult world by children." In the film, Léolo stumbles across a copy of 'The Swallower Swallowed' and forms a fixation upon it despite the fact that the words reach well beyond his level of comprehension. With this in mind, it cannot be too far fetched to imagine that Léolo is able to achieve peace when locked inside his own mind. Without any awareness of the mad world around him he is free to explore the annals of his unconscious being. It's better than being dead, in some views.

The Word Tamer left his copy of the book at Léolo's home, unwittingly affecting the boy's future.

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