Danced to Death by Visions

The Irish Film Festival, online again 2021, runs from 3-12 September. Tickets available now.

Film Review by Frances Devlin-Glass

Death of a Ladies’ Man, Written and Directed by Matt Bissonette; Starring Gabriel Byrne; Cinematography by Jonathon Cliff. A co-production of Telefilm Canada and Screen Ireland. 2020.

Available online as part of the International Irish Film Festival.

Death of a Ladies’ Man is as anodyne a film about a dying man as one could wish for. It details much family dysfunction, intergenerational even, fuelled by either alcohol or heroin, and offers few real insights as to what caused the initial trauma – the abandonment of a young child by a mother, and the subsequent death of his father at a young age.

However, the film has some entertaining ways of telling its multi-generational stories, and they are all dramatic. Not only is there abandonment, but there are divorces (expected), revelations of gay identity, vengeful thugs (unexpected), sexual rivals, who seem to venture out of another kind of film, one in which Davy Crocket might be comfortable. What gives the film vitality is that it ventures into the non-naturalistic which exponentially becomes quite surreal. The reader knows the chief protagonist, Sam O’Shea, college professor and novelist manqué (played by Gabriel Byrne), is dying, but what that means is conveyed via an accompanying chorus of bizarre associates, presumably figures from his ‘booze-fuelled psychoses’ and some of them materialise slowly: a pair of white hands with black pointy nails progressively manifests as a scythed Death (another escapee from a different kind of Norwegian noir film). Other strange witnesses to his deteriorating state include a Buddhist monk, a Frankenstein monster with a high forehead and bolt in the neck, and an American-style cheerleader. Sometimes the visions are bizarre: for instance, there’s a shot of winged birds shooting fire at a Canadian city (Montreal or Quebec, I’m assuming), but I’m not sure what to make of it. There’s another scene where Sam dies prematurely and is imaged as a statuesque figure on whom snow is falling. Are we meant to think of Joyce’s ‘The Dead’? I wasn’t sure. But it was was gorgeous cinematography (Jonathan Cliff).

What humanises this film is the appearance in it of a benign ghost of the father Sam lost as a teenager, and they engage in increasingly emotional exchanges, which cast no light whatever on the original failure of the family relations: why the mother left. It was unrealised ambition it seems, not unlike the son’s own, as vague as that. However unsatisfying as a plot point, one does appreciate the main character’s narrative arc as involving a deeper appreciation of his father’s care for him in the years after his mother’s leaving. And there are some knock-on effects which are rather more conventional than expected (let me avoid spoilers).

Gabriel Byrne’s Sam, College Professor, is a little eccentric (as endearing teachers of groovy literary texts are allowed to be), but we’re not led to sympathise with him as a philanderer, and indeed one wonders if his latest commitment, a French Canadian who turns up in Galway, is not delusional. I found myself feeling something for the young daughter (Karelle Tremblay) who is lost in a world of violent student drama/dance and hooked on heroin by her crazed and paranoid boyfriend. She, of all the family, understands the ‘horror of marriage’, and acts on her connection to her father and her anguish at his brain-tumour- and alcohol-damaged state, is palpable.

This is a film that looks for its audience mainly to the diasporic Irish in Canada and the US. There is a sequence set in Galway which again seems to have strayed out of a different film (the wild west, or wild-west noir?). It’s violent, but at arm’s length from reality, as is Sam’s dying from a brain tumour. There’s no haste in his demise, and much time for dancing with visions and for a strange funeral procession without a coffin in a church (he seemed staunchly a-religious, so this too surprised), and much use of drone footage. Sam has time to realise every literature professor’s dream (isn’t it?) of writing a novel. There are gentle jokes (the ghostly father has a ‘heavenly’ flight to the west of Ireland) and much soul-balm in the form of the liberal use of Leonard Cohen’s songs, with which at one point Byrne sings along in a gravelly, breathy voice.

This is a delightful feel-good movie that is light on grittiness and heavy on sentiment. Its evocation of Ireland is airbrushed and it celebrates Canada in quirky and humorous ways, even having a joke at the expense of its formerly controversial national anthem.

Frances Devlin-Glass

Frances is a member of the Tinteán editorial collective.