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Cannes 2024: Oh, Canada and The Shrouds

A white man sits behind a desk.Richard Gere in Oh, Canada

For decades, Paul Schrader’s taste in cinema has been widely known, particularly the Bressonian proclivities he’s repeatedly worked over—and, especially since becoming a Facebook poster, he’s provided an open invitation to make his problems ours as well. Watching Oh, Canada knowing of his recent health scares, my guess was that the topical draw of Russell Banks’s source novel Foregone was death; indeed, after several hospitalizations for long COVID, Schrader told himself, “If I’m going to make a film about death, I’d better hurry up.” Thus Oh, Canada, which reteams Schrader with his American Gigolo star Richard Gere (the writer-director jokes that this time they’re offering up “Dying gigolo”). This isn’t another one of Schrader’s “Man in a Room” films, at least in the sense that no solitary male is shown sitting alone journaling about guilt and expiation, but in another sense it absolutely is, as it’s literally a man sitting in a room and telling his life story. Ailing documentarian Leonard Fife (Gere), an American draft dodger turned Canadian film royalty, has agreed to sit down for an interview with his former students Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Emma (Uma Thurman), who promise that their movie will make him “as big in the Canadian collective memory as Glenn Gould.” 

The film’s Canadiana is both sporadic—as manifest in Imperioli’s would-be accent, which consists of rounding his O’s on the rare occasions he remembers to—and sometimes amusingly specific (“I won a Genie. And a Gemini.”). But neither Canada nor documentary filmmaking seem to be top of Schrader’s mind; we know what kind of movies he’s interested in, and aside from the ’70s of Wang Bing and Michelangelo Frammartino, nonfiction isn’t in that mix. The screen time devoted to Fife’s filmography is brief, confined to the odd detail that he pioneered the techniques that led Errol Morris to develop the Interrotron and a very brief walk through the origins of his career, which includes titles like The Shame of Canada and Slaughter on the Ice. But Oh, Canada has pretty much nothing to say about documentaries per se, even if Fife delivers several college lectures on broader subjects, which basically boil down to rehashing Susan Sontag’s On Photography; the bulk of the movie’s interest is in who he slept with over the years (many women) and how he feels bad about everything now.

Fife is played in his youth by Jacob Elordi, although sometimes Gere wanders through his own past; it’s suggested that medication is making him mentally fuzzy, prone to false memories (if he’s not deliberately lying), but the movie doesn’t do much with its ostensible narrative slipperiness. Oh, Canada certainly has more energy than Schrader’s last two films, The Card Counter and Master Gardener, in part because it’s a rare foray into period filmmaking with actual production values. While the present is captured in boxy 1.33 and a late-breaking ‘80s section in 1.85, the bulk of the narrative takes place in the ’60s, in grain-heavy widescreen that screens “filmic.” This is a terrific simulation—per DP Andrew Wonder via email,  the film “was all digital using Arri’s new texture profiles and some overlay to create grain,” and the lustrousness is a pleasant surprise. There are moments that are beautifully composed in ways that suggest Otto Preminger and adjacent studio classicists working during the early years of CinemaScope; a shot of Elordi’s car pulling into a rural Vermont driveway lets his luxe vehicle take up half of the frame, with a barn taking up the other half far away, those proportions balanced and lovely in ways that are unusual at this moment; I’d need Bordwelllian chops, and maybe measuring tape, to quantify my description further. 

But Schrader is also counter-productively lazy. When Elordi pulls up to an airport in a period-appropriate car and walks in, four or so other period vehicles slowly drive by to seal the production values deal—an effect spoiled by the parking lot in the background, crammed full of contemporary autos. You could argue that Schrader’s taking advantage of his main character’s memory lapses to conflate past and present, but that almost certainly isn’t true; it’s just inattentive slipshoddiness, as if it were that hard to find a different direction to point the camera and solve the problem. Likewise, the film wants to be devastating and mournful, as signaled from its beginning by Phosphorescent’s maudlin songs, which wallpaper too much of the running time, and by characteristically Schrader-esque lines like “How can so much suffering have no meaning”? But it’s largely a low-energy curiosity, an amalgam of odd documentary jokes and mortal dread.

A more successful combination of weirdly-targeted humor and morbid musings from a veteran eccentric, David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds is emotionally rooted in the death of his wife Carolyn after 43 years of marriage. Vincent Cassel is undeniably a physical stand-in for Cronenberg, as confirmed in an interview: “Vincent’s approach as an actor was this character is David, and I am going to try to replicate David. He’s wearing clothes that I would not normally wear, and his hair is coiffed a little more carefully than mine. But undeniably he’s done a very good job of looking and sounding like me.” The latter is inaccurate; Cassel sounds less like Cronenberg than Arnold Schwarzenegger, which is funny and pleasingly offbeat, as is the movie as a whole. The degree to which it’s self-conscious of itself as a camp object, as often with Cronenberg, is unclear, but there’s a definite tilt towards comedy from the get-go, when Cassel’s character Karsh goes on a blind date and explains to the woman that the titular shrouds are placed on buried corpses, allowing their grieving loved ones to see their bodies as they decompose—and that he’s recently upgraded the visual resolution to 8K. 

An extremely complicated plot then unfolds, which is essentially about who’s desecrating those graves, why they’re doing so and whether a conspiracy of some kind, rather than cancer, led to Karsh’s wife’s death. No less than Oh, Canada, this is a very Late Style work, consisting mostly of people sitting or standing in various places while exchanging large amounts of dialogue—a climactic scene is reminiscent of the waterfall fight in The Hunted but with zero action. Cronenberg is, however, very adept at coverage and slight reframings that give the film a muscular momentum, combined with an offbeat, unexpectedly deployed sense of humor. (Best joke: when one of Diane Kruger’s three characters says that what Karsh is saying “excites” her, he replies “Excites you how? Conceptually?”) This is also, by a considerable margin, Cronenberg’s most Jewish feature, with explanations of burial rites and Guy Pierce’s software nerd character being called a schmuck repeatedly, which he then visually enacts by chowing down on matzoh ball soup and a pastrami sandwich. Behind all this is a palpable grief in which mourning is both for a personality and the departed body containing it, with attendant sexual longing as important as any other aspect. If The Brood was made as a metaphorical expulsion of how Cronenberg felt after a painful divorce from his first wife, with grotesque outgrowths externalizing the rage of its tragic heroine, here the filmmaker moves beyond metaphor towards sad literal-mindedness—the ultimate body horror is not deformation but decomposition.

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