Friday, December 28, 2012

FIlm #92: Leolo (1992)

Director: Jean-Claude Lauzon

Initial Release Country: Canada

Times Previously Seen: none

Rapid-Fire Summary

In a Montreal, Quebec slum, twelve-year old Leolo Lazone is steeped in misery. His family is impoverished, and all of his relatives suffer from some form of severe limitation. His brothers and sisters are all either mentally challenged or lapse into insanity on regular bases. His loving but completely uneducated parents obsess over their children’s bowel movements, and his grandfather not only tries to kill Leolo, but is also a sexual deviant.

While there is no true physical escape for Leolo from his warped environment, he is able to escape within his mind. Through a little bit of reading and a lot of his own writing, he concocts various tales about his own origins and the people around him. Envisioning himself as the son of an unknown Italian, he constantly dreams of being on the gorgeous Italian coast with his beautiful neighbor, Bianca. It is with similar imagination that he deals with the extremely strange behavior of his family and the ways that it affects him.

Leolo in two of his refuges - the bathroom and his writing. The noose around his neck can certainly be seen as a not-too subtle symbol of his life circumstance.

Eventually, the final straw is placed. After attempting to kill his perverted and unstable grandfather and bearing witness to one too many distorted sexual acts around him, Leolo finally snaps. He becomes catatonic and is placed in a mental institution, presumably for the rest of his days.

My Take on the Film

I’ll never watch this movie again.

Don’t take that completely the wrong way. Leolo is, indeed, unique and shows a wealth of skill on the part of writer/producer Jean-Claude Lauzon. In reading a brief summary like mine above, it will seem that the movie has little more than depravity and depression to offer a viewer. This is certainly not the case, but these dour themes are what I ultimately take away from the film.

For a good part of the movie, Leolo actually keeps just to the right side of the line between darkly humorous and simply dark. During the earliest scenes, depicting a very young Leolo being forced by his delusional parents to ingest laxatives and defecate on command, one is almost overwhelmed by how repulsive, desperate, and hopeless his situation is. Yet, once he begins to twist his surroundings into his own imaginative reality, some welcome levity is added. Seeing his pathetically dull older brother go from the classic “90 pound weakling” to a muscle-bound body builder is rather amusing. Also, his regular trips to the psychiatric ward to visit his other family members as they enter and exit various stages of psychosis provide some humorous moments.

One of the somewhat lighter moments in the film - Leolo (middle) about to be hurled into the sea by his brother (left) and an accomplice, so that he can retrieve fishing hooks to be resold.

Still, by the end of the film, there is nothing left at which to laugh. Once his siblings have all gone thoroughly insane and Leolo bears witness to a wretched act of bestiality by one of his peers, the little boy joins his brothers and sisters in their inescapable states of catatonia. For me, at this point, any of the lighter moments from earlier in the film had ceased to have much meaning. While Leolo’s fertile and active mind had given some entertaining and touching attempts at escape, they are all for naught in the end.

Another lesser problem I had with the film is that it is not exactly as original as one would believe, reading many of the critical reviews. One of the more notable scenes, in which the adolescent Leolo explores his sexuality with liver (no, that is not a typo – it is just the kind of thing that this film offers), is actually ripped off from Philip Roth’s novel Portnoy’s Complaint. More generally, the graphic nature of the sordid, impoverished sexuality is something that I have seen in other films such as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. And so, there was not even some sense of “bravura” novelty to be taken in.

I must say that the visuals are stunning in the film. The technical merits are laudable, and there is a wealth of clever framing and shooting. The contrasts between Leolo’s stark reality and his vibrant imaginings are made very clear through the camera work and frame compositions. In many scenes, the film is pleasant to look at. However, once again, there are many scenes in which the actions taking place are repugnant enough to undermine an appreciation of the aesthetic skill.

Leolo finds warmth and refuge in this makeshift shelter with his sister. The soft glow of the candles is captured extremely well and conveys the sense of comfort.

On a final note, this film brought to mind a few other, more recent pictures – Terry Gilliam’s Tideland and Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth. Tideland tried to pull a very similar trick, telling the story of a young girl in absolutely miserable circumstances (drug addict parents who both die of overdoses) who copes by envisioning an entire fantasy world around her. Alas, like Leolo, Gilliam failed in my mind, and the story is just far too depressing to be overcome by some bright visuals. Pan’s Labyrinth, on the other hand, actually succeeded. The overall tale is arguably just as downbeat as Leolo or Tideland, but del Toro managed to find the right balance and leave the viewer with the right amount of sweetness to accompany the bitterness.

I would only recommend Leolo to those who are not put off by extremely depressing movies. If such themes do not bother you, you may very well find this movie one of the more creative and engaging of its type. To me, though, one viewing was plenty.

That's a wrap. 92 shows down. 13 to go.

Coming Soon: Farewell, My Concubine (1993):

Don't know much about this one, except that it has the look of a rather sad tale. This will make number 2 in the "depresso 1-2-3 punch" of current films for me, preceded by Leolo and succeeded by Schindler's List. I'll be mixing in some Farrelly brothers movies, just to maintain some kind of balance here.