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Thursday, October 30, 2014

Canadian Film Review: Cinemanovels (2013)

* * *

Director: Terry Miles
Starring: Lauren Lee Smith

Filmmakers put a lot of themselves into their films, and when you watch the entire body of someone's work, certain themes and ideas emerge over and over again as a common through line - but can you really know a person through their films and what they put into them? Terry Miles' Cinemanovels is a film about movies and identity, about a woman whose father is like a giant question mark in her history and who attempts to answer that question by watching all of the movies he wrote and directed. That what she ends up learning is more about herself than her father is, perhaps, inevitable but that makes the route she has to follow to get there no less interesting. Though it made the festivals rounds, including premiering a TIFF, Cinemanovels appears not to have received even a small theatrical release which, while not surprising for a Canadian film, is still unfortunate as it is light and engaging enough that it could have found an audience with a bit of a promotional push.

The filmmaker at the center of Cinemanovels is already dead as the story begins, but his shadow hangs over it from beginning to end, just as it has hung over the life of his daughter, Grace (Lauren Lee Smith). Just before his death the father, a celebrated auteur, was in talks to put together a retrospective of his work and now that he's gone Grace offers to put it together herself, seeing it as an opportunity to get to know a man from whom she spent most of her life estranged. Almost as soon as she volunteers, however, she begins to regret it as it means that she's not only going to have to finally watch all 35 of her father's films and do it in a relatively short period of time, but she's also going to have to relive some of the more painful aspects of her past. When she was a child, her father had an affair with Sophie (Gabrielle Rose), an actress in his films, and ultimately left the family in order to be with her, all but severing his relationship with his daughter and leaving his former wife emotionally shattered. The events of the filmmaker's past are woven into his work and, indeed, one of his most celebrated films is about a man who leaves his wife and child to be with his mistress - though in his version of events the wife is secretly complicit in the genesis of the affair and in league with the mistress. Experiencing the films for the first time is difficult for Grace, though the despondency that she feels is at least partially the result of what's going on in her own present, rather than the past.

Married to Ben (Ben Cotton), an investment banker with a counterintuitive admiration for Marxism, Grace has been outwardly playing along with the notion that she and Ben are trying to conceive, though she's secretly taking birth control and seems to have one foot out the door of her marriage. She pretends that she wants a child because people are "supposed to" grow up, get married, and have children, but having had a parent who was an absent presence throughout her life, she feels compelled to sabotage any attempts to conceive, and as she works on the retrospective, she begins to drift away from Ben and towards Adam (Kett Turton), a neighbor who also happens to be a film editor and a film scholar who wrote his thesis on her father's work. Adam begins helping Grace put the retrospective together and when Grace shares with him some of her father's notebooks and some film that he shot but never released, Adam discovers that he had rewritten one of his films and shot additional footage in order to turn it into something slightly different. With Grace's encouragement Adam begins re-editing the film by following the notes and splicing in the new footage, falling in love with Grace as he works with her and as she finds that her own life is starting to echo events in her father's films.

Running at a brisk 89 minutes, Cinemanovels moves quickly but nevertheless manages to make time for some fairly rich characterization in terms of its protagonist. The supporting characters are a bit underdeveloped, particularly Adam whose infatuation with Grace comes seemingly out of nowhere, though I suppose one might argue that his hero worship of her father provides the basis for the intensity of his attraction to her, but Grace is a character who emerges as distinct and complex. She is at once drawn to and repulsed by her father, curious about the man she didn't know but who is half-responsible for her existence, and angry about his behavior towards herself and her mother. Both feelings are inspired by an unspoken question: how much is she like him? And then its follow-up: is she destined to repeat his history? Her marriage is fragile from the start, but the deeper she immerses herself in her father's work - and, by extension, the more time she spends with Adam - the weaker her marriage begins to seem and the less willing she seems to be to commit to anything, including the marriage. At times she purposely recreates scenes from the films as if she's using them as a blueprint for escape from her own relationship, even though she seems to be somewhat ambivalent about the films themselves - at least until she sees the recut film that Adam has been working on, which seems to make her realize that she does have a choice about what direction her life will go in from here and that she doesn't have to follow the pattern set her father.

Cinemanovels is an engaging film that alternates easily between comedy and drama, though it functions best when in comedy mode and that is at least partially attributable to Katherine Isabelle, who plays Adam's roommate Charlotte and claims the film's single best line reading after Grace, trying to recreate a scene from one of her father's films (and, perhaps, feeling a bit guilty about her clandestine relationship with Adam), asks Charlotte if she would seduce Ben. In the lead, Smith is adapt at both the comedic and dramatic moments and her performance solidly anchors the piece, even if the film itself doesn't always quite rise to the level of her performance. Throughout Cinemanovels scenes of Grace's life are intercut with scenes from her father's films and this element ends up being a bit problematic as the films within the film really don't sell the idea that Grace's father would have been one of the film world's most celebrated contemporary auteurs, particularly from an aesthetic standpoint (one problem is the incongruity of Grace's father films having been shot in digital). That aside, however, Cinemanovels is a solid and entertaining film worth seeking out.

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