Oh Canada (2024)

Oh Canada Review

Oh Canada (2024)

To capture the career-reassessing soul of Russell Banks’ penultimate novel, Paul Schrader curbs his usual confrontational style and reteams with Richard Gere (some 40 years after “American Gigolo”).

Instead of exploding like the proverbial “Taxi Driver,” Paul Schrader’s late-career purple patch offers a ruminative tribute to novelist Russell Banks who gave him the raw material for one of his best films (“Affliction”) and now, surely, for one of his best in years. Adapted from Banks’ “Foregone” (and titled as such because that’s what the author told Schrader he should call it), “Oh, Canada” takes the form of a dying artist’s multifaceted film-within-a-film-as-testimony part homage to Banks, part Schrader on mortality.
This is not an ordinary cancer. Leonard Fife (played by Richard Gere in present day, Jacob Elordi when half a century younger and half a foot taller) has had a long bout with something he calls “not the good kind,” but whatever flavour it is that he’s fighting against this time, it comes complete with accolades and awards: He’s an esteemed documentary filmmaker who has won at least one Oscar.

On arrival at their Montreal mentor’s home where Leonard sits in front of cameras to tell his life story while seeing reflections of those who might be interviewing him Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) tells fellow former student Diana (Victoria Hill) that he knows how to set up this unique camera rig. It was invented by Leonard himself, he says based on Errol Morris’ Interrotron, in which both subject and interviewer can stare straight into lens and see each other’s face reflected there.
“I made a career out of getting people to tell me the truth,” sighs Leonard. “Now it’s my turn.” But Leonard couldn’t be less interested in his own legacy. He wants to do the interview for his wife Emma’s sake, and he won’t even sit down until she joins him (Uma Thurman is brilliant in a role that starts off peripheral and proves at least as strong as Malcolm’s).

Malcolm will ask the questions, but Leonard directs the shoot, answering for his wife and there you have this profound if slightly scattered film’s heart.
It would be easy for Leonard Fife to go to his grave regarded by all who know of him as a hero an “artiste engagé,” as Malcolm flatteringly puts it but instead he wants desperately to blow up the idea of himself as any kind of hero at all; he wants to tell the truth about what really happened between himself and the woman whose political commitment sparked so many of their shared ideals. As soon as he starts speaking, Schrader’s nearly square Academy ratio instantly expands, and in walks Elordi with slightly long hair as young Leonard. It doesn’t especially look like Gere, but that really doesn’t matter here either: If nothing else, Schrader is making clear that Elordi and Gere are both playing Leonard Fife no matter how old or young Leonard happens to be at this moment.
The truth? Memory? Something more literal about what Lenny is currently telling these cameras that might possibly be distorted or made up depending on how much longer Len has left with us? Whatever these widescreen interludes represent doesn’t actually matter; what does is that Schrader keeps cutting back from them to show us Gordon Willis-lit older versions of Leonard stubbornly insisting on being honest with them, with himself, with us.

The flashbacks emerge like godlike (though possibly untrustworthy) B-roll, jumbled. Leonard starts telling a story about the moment in his second marriage when he and his pregnant wife Alicia (Kristine Froseth) were about to buy a house in Vermont. Days before Leonard was supposed to deliver the down payment, his wealthy father-in-law offered him the chance to run the family business. At that point, Leonard dreamed of being a novelist; another, earlier series of flashbacks (these in black and white) shows us that he was not one to be tied down.

Leonard has built an entire reputation around the myth that he fled the United States for Canada either as a draft dodger or a conscientious objector. The truth isn’t quite so romantic; in fact, it’s downright anti-romantic, as Leonard describes it: He’s always walked out on women. (At one point he admits to seducing Diana.) In addition to all this narration from Leonard himself, “Oh, Canada” also gives us lots of Cornel’s Emma never knew she had an abandoned stepson who just wants his dad back and much of what we learn about Leonard comes indirectly from other characters’ descriptions of him.

Leonard knows he’s dying, and tells Malcolm he wants to come clean. He likens giving this interview to praying (“Whether or not you believe in God, you don’t lie when you pray,” he says), but it seems more like confessing than praying which would still make sense if prayer is what mixes up words with things so badly that you tell all your secrets. The interview-as-confession metaphor doesn’t quite work anyway because by now we’ve got so many voices bouncing off walls we can barely hear them anymore: It’s not Schrader’s fault if Gere keeps popping up in scenes set in the ’60s.

It doesn’t help that Gere is constantly popping up in scenes set in the ’60s. Nor does it help that, now in his 70s and notoriously outspoken on social media, Schrader has been quite public about his personal health issues; with this film, he confronts the ugly truth of dying. (The truth is also Leonard’s problem: At some point he walked out on Cornel.) Once driven by his loins, Leonard does his interview with a urostomy bag hanging by his side. When the young female intern leans in to attach his mic, Leonard takes a deep whiff (classier than having him look down her blouse which I mention not because I’m trying to be funny but because how difficult must have it been for this man to get older?). It used to be necessary for satisfying his libido that false legend; now he has no need to sustain it. From Emma, he wants not forgiveness but greater intimacy.

Easily the least sensationalist entry in Schrader’s oeuvre, “Oh, Canada” contains absolutely no violence: none at all. It’s not without death, obviously what else can be said? but the strategy of letting things escalate toward an explosive finale (the only flaw in “First Reformed”) won’t fly here; this film works better going out on a whimper. It’s also bolstered nicely by a series of mellow songs from Phosphorescent (aka Matthew Houck).

This is ultimately Banks’ story she’s great as always but one can feel Schrader weaving his own ideas into Leonard’s worldview. How many artists have avoided this moral reckoning? Here Leonard brings that scrutiny upon himself; should Malcolm’s movie ever come out, it would surely undermine him or its honesty would undermine him even more than its existence already has done so far if we assume that art should always aspire to be respectable which may not be true at all.

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