Hannah Strong


Oh, Canada – first-look review

A celebrated documentary filmmaker makes a deathbed confession in Paul Schrader's adaptation of Russell Bank's novel Foregone.

Paul Schrader’s films have more or less always been haunted by the grim spectre of death – he’s been mentally tormented in the manner that all former devout Christians are since he abandoned plans to become a Calvinist minister for a film career. But Oh, Canada is, even by Schradian standards, more concerned with mortality than ever, owing to a run of severe illness,  caring for his wife Mary Beth Hurt following her Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and the death of his friend, the writer Russell Banks, in 2022. The year before he passed away, Banks published the novel Foregone, about a documentary filmmaker dying of cancer, who agrees to one final interview about his life, to be shot by two of his former students. It’s no great mystery why this source material might have appealed to Schrader.

There’s another poignancy to Oh, Canada: Schrader reunites with Richard Gere 44 years after American Gigolo, who plays ailing documentarian Leonard Fife. The prosthetics and make-up make him look much frailer than his 74 years – stooped and disoriented, Fife makes for a more vulnerable protagonist than the likes of Julian Kay. Gere gives his best performance in years, evoking Philip Baker Hall in the similarly confessional Secret Honour, at once defiant, uncertain and just the slightest bit frightened. The second the camera turns on, Fife’s frail demeanour shifts, turning steely and insistent, and his motivation for agreeing to the interview becomes clear. This isn’t a celebration; it’s a confession.

Flashbacks reveal Fife’s early adult life, in which he was married with a young son and on the verge of moving from Virginia to Vermont to take up a teaching position. Jacob Elordi plays the young Fife – a charismatic, intellectual womaniser – and although there isn’t much physical resemblance between Elordi and Gere (Elordi is seven inches taller for a start), the performances are complimentary; it’s not difficult to see how the whip-smart, idealistic Leonard became the self-serious pride of the Canadian film industry.

In the present, Leonard has little interest in the questions Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Diana (Victoria Hill) have prepared for him. He explains he is doing the interview for his wife Emma (Uma Thurman), a former student, with the intention of showing who he really is. He wishes to deconstruct a lifetime’s worth of mythology that’s positioned him as an unflinching leftist filmmaker who escaped to Canada in an effort to avoid the Vietnam draft on moral grounds. Repeatedly those around him suggest he’s not in his right mind and that his cancer treatment has addled his mind, but Leonard is insistent. He never lived as an honest man, but he’d like to die as one.

So it goes: his great discoveries were happenstance; marriages and children were abandoned and concealed. For years Fife would run from responsibilities until he had sculpted a persona he was happy with. A liar, a narcissist, a cold, selfish son of a bitch – Leonard lays out his offences in piercing detail, despite pleas for him to stop. It’s hard to say how much of Schrader himself is in Fife, but the filmmaker has been quite forthcoming, and certainly the guilt that consumes him is a familiar theme in his work.

There’s some of the austerity of Schrader’s last three films here, but Oh, Canada is not a lonely film in the same way as First Reformed, The Card Counter and Master Gardener – for those protagonists, self-imposed exile was a response to the crushing weight of chronic guilt. Leonard, who has led a full life if not an honest one, has waited until his literal deathbed confession to face his failings. Many of these are vocalised; some are only heard in voice-over or seen in flashbacks, such as the real way that Fife was able to avoid the draft (which is far more cowardly than objecting on political grounds).

Replicating the disorienting impact of Fife’s illness, there are more experimental flourishes than expected from Schrader, who has been quite happy in his formalist groove for the past seven years, and they don’t always come together – the inconsistent use of black and white in flashbacks is distracting, and his heavy use of quick cuts verges on exhausting. There’s also a sense that a fair few pieces of the puzzle are missing, although this might be by design, echoing the way the past fragments and reinvents itself as we grow older. Perhaps this accounts for the undeniable sincerity of Oh, Canada, as untidy as it is. Schrader is a man with death on his mind, attempting to reckon with how he has lived his own life – the mistakes he’s made, the people he’s hurt, the problematic opinions he’s expressed on Facebook – and the possibility of redemption (a thread he began to pull in Master Gardener).

It’s a particularly fascinating film to consider alongside Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, which also premiered in competition at Cannes, and couldn’t be more different formally or tonally. Yet these two late, imperfect works from ageing titans of cinema who were born into an entirely different world reflect their authors’ feelings of being men out of time, watching it slip through their fingers like sand in an hourglass. Yet still they persevere behind the camera, as more and more cinemas shutter and eyes turn to TikToks and cheap streaming content devoid of artistry or soul. Because who are we without the stories we tell ourselves? The human experience is just that, after all: story after story, fiction after fiction, hurt and hate and hope. And in these two late fragments, Schrader and Coppola bring to mind the final poem of the great Raymond Carver, written while he was dying of cancer:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

Published 17 May 2024

Tags: Paul Schrader

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