Curling is the name of a game played on ice in which players by two competing teams try their best to guide over the slippery surface of an ice game ring (called “curling sheet”) 8 heavy granite blocks (called “rocks”), polished into the form of a cheese cake after an initial slide by a team member towards a marked circle ( called a “house”) . The team which gets the maximum number of rocks closest to the centre of the house. It’s a bit like the French game of “boule”, except that it is played on ice instead of on the ground. It is a game which calls for a great deal of co-operation between its team members. But for me, it is the name of a Canadian movie by the film critic turned director Denis Côtè’s I saw yesterday morning, the fifth in my HKIFF list.
In many ways, it is a strangely haunting film. We see endless expanses of pure white snow, over the woods, the fields, the highways, interspersed with scenes inside a lonely out of the way cabin off the highway, a bowling alley, two motels and finally a children’s snowboard playground. It almost feels as if the winter snow is a silent observer of all that is going on in the film.
As the film opens, we see in close up the freckled face of a girl of about 12 called Julyonne (played by Philomene Bilodeau). She is being examined by an opthalmologist and is told that she has got astigmatism and must wear a pair of corrective spectacles. We learn that she does not go to school. We next see her at home, talking to a man who fixes her dinner. He is her father Jean-Francois ( played by Emmanuel Bilodeau, her real life father). Their conversation is spare, almost purely functional although they apparently get on well but we see little signs of any strong or even warm emotion on their faces. There is a calmness and expressionlessness as blank as the snow outside of their house in snow-bound Quebec. We are next shown a scene of Jean Francois wiping the floor of a bowling alley, in silence, with bowling pins in the background. A new young girl Isabelle ( played by Sophie Desmarais) in heavy make-up and an exaggerated hairdo (which changes every time we see her) and dressed like a sexy doll, is arriving to work there. He looks at her for a second or two but continues to wipe the floor. After work, his boss tries to formally introduce her to him and engage him in conversation and says that he must bring out his daughter girl Julyvonne to play at the bowling centre a little more with her new assistant. He says that one should not “hide in the lake to avoid being wetted by the rain”. Isabelle, a Spanish girl, doesn’t understand the French proverb and asks what it means. His boss explains it to her. Jean Francois makes a non-committal reply. We next see the father and daughter walking home at the side of the highway in a blazing blizzard, is questioned by a passing police patrol car officer who offers to give them a lift home but is rejected by the father .
As the film develops, we learn that Jean Francois does want her child to go to school because he does not want her to pick up bad habits from the other kids and not too effectively home schooling her, that the child’s mother Rosie is in a woman’s prison, that out of boredom Julyvonne would often glue her face to the window of her house to observe in silence what is going on outside her house,that she would even look at a man stopping his car at the side of the highway in the distance to pee, that she would lie besides some corpses lying unattended in a nearby forest, that she often asks to see Rosie, that she is allowed to see her only once during which she was embraced for the first time by someone, that being allowed to listen to the radio would be regarded by her as a great reward for having behaved well according to his father’s standards (the song being played as she dances to its rhythm is signficantly Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now”), that one day Jean-Francois found another unattended young boy at the side of the highway, apparently frozen to death, that there is a suddenly a trail of blood leading from the girl’s white bedsheet to the toilet, that the girl watches a tiger behind a fence in a zoo (?) lying in the snow. The images and scenes are never explained. They are merely presented and juxtaposed. We never know what happened before or afterwards.
What is Denis Côtè is trying to suggest by his images? Are they mere enigmatic symbols? Perhaps we may get a clue from two scenes: the first shows Jean Francois being invited to play a game of curling by the proprietress of the motel where he and his daughter are living but he merely watches despite enthusiastic exhortation to him to join in and the second towards the close of the film when he imitates the motions required to win the game of curling and hitting the extended hands of each member of the team in blue uniform in celebration of his having done well and embracing the proprietress (probably in his imagination) and burst into a dance but only after he had gone out and had a casual sexual encounter with another lonely woman in another motel during one of his period of anxiety and had talked during that brief escapade to an old proprietor of another motel with a sign “fermé” upon its main entrance, about the joys of rabbit hunting and the final scene, in which he is bringing his daughter to a children’s snow board playground where we see children having fun with their parents so she can be with children of her age, something about which she has been asking her father for permission to do and which up till then, he has steadfastly ignored. For once, it was day time and not dark as was most of the other scenes.
Like “The Ditch” which I saw earlier, there is no movie score. The only music we hear is that at the party at the bowling centre and the one heard on the radio at Jean-Francois’ bleak and bare home. Is the silence of the film part of the message? The film looks like a cinematic jig-saw puzzle. We’ve got to fit the pieces together. It’s a tale of loneliness and the need to connect. There is a subtle irony: the girl’s mother who wants to be connected is locked inside a prison ( we are not told why) whilst two persons who are free not within heavy prison gates appear to be voluntarily isolating themselves from society, living alone in an attempt to avoid being “contaminated” by society’s bad habits and therefore living a kind of marginal existence outside the pale of normal human intercourse in a kind of solitude a deux.
Are Jean-Francois and Julyvonne happy? Should they continue to stay outside of normal social intercourse? Is the director suggesting at the start of the film by the image the Julyonne does not have the two pupils of her eyes correctly focused that she does not see the world with the correct perspective? Is Jean Francois’s boss pointing to the core of his employee’s problem when he used that French proverb about the avoiding the rain by drowning in a lake? Is the role that best fits Jean Francois is that of a clown, the role that he was given by his boss at a children’s birthday party at the bowling centre? Is Julyvonne fascinated with the danger of the sleeping and yawning tiger behind the fence? Does she prefer the company of corpses to her solitude? Is the director suggesting that there may well be other children dying of solitude in Quebec apart from Julyevonne? That the menstrual blood of Julyvonne indicates that she has arrived at another stage in her life in which she needs some changes in the way she has been brought up and is that not why the proprietress of her motel suggest that instead of cleaning up the mess of her blood on the floor, it would have been easier if she were to give Jean Francois another new room altogether? Is the true meaning of the game of curling the process of enthusiastic participation in it rather its results? Do we “win” merely by playing? Denis Cóté does not give any easy answers. He prefers to show us, to give hints, allusions and enigmatic symbols rather than to tell us. The photography is sensitive, the winter snow and silence overpowering and the acting very natural. I’d give the minimalist film a 2A.