The Canada of tyro helmer Stephane Lafleur’s “Continental — A Film Without Guns” recalls Gloria Graham’s wry description of Glenn Ford’s digs in “Big Heat”: early nothing. The drab, bland hotel rooms and homes even lack bad taste; in Lafleur’s sad, gunless no-man’s land, everything is featureless — even ugliness. His four characters, whose stories crisscross without serendipity or fanfare, pursue lives of quiet desperation. Nonetheless, multi-strander boasts considerable humor and a gentle appreciation of individual awkwardness within its larger, absurdist social framework. Pitch-perfect Francophone pic deserves wider distribution than its subtitles may allow.
Pic opens (and closes) on the mystical: A middle-aged man falls asleep on a bus, and, when he awakens, the bus is completely abandoned. Drawn by a faint sound, he disappears into the forest.
His wife (Marie-Ginette Guay) spends the next weeks vacillating between despair and anger. She can’t decide whether to count her absent hubby well lost and get on with her life, or to stay faithful to her past belief in him. The phone rings but no one speaks. In a lonely attempt at reassimilation, she goes to a ballroom and does the continental — a line dance where everyone performs the same motion without touching.
Not all of the stories are directly linked to the missing man, though the sense of a weird parallel universe, from which wordless phone calls issue forth, never entirely dissipates and tends to denaturalize the ways in which the film’s other loser characters cling to their tattered integrity, bringing out humor and pathos in equal doses.
In its own, uniquely apologetic Canadian way, Lafleur’s pic recalls the upbeat sad-sack ethos of a Kaurismaki film. Characters in their daily struggle possess the strange dignity of their persistence and the odd ingenuity of their patchwork coping mechanisms.
An aging second-hand dealer (Bernard Sicotte) in need of dental reconstruction, hits up his ex-wife for a loan and resumes his ex-gambling habit for a quick fix.
A newly hired young insurance salesman (Real Bosse) winds up living in a hotel, yearning for his wife and child back home and listening to the loud sexual transports of the woman next door. That neighbor, a reasonably attractive if everyday-seeming thirtysomething woman, approaches him with a polite offer to watch her and her husband make love.
But the most gloriously embarrassing moment definitely belongs to Chantal (Fanny Mallette), a shy, klutzy receptionist at the hotel. Having a baby thrust at her by billing and cooing women at a bridal shower, she gingerly accepts it, at which point the camera pans to follow the chattering women. A loud thud brings the camera back to a circle of horrified partygoers staring at the fallen baby.
Tech credits are highly effective, Sara Mishara’s lensing especially deft in capturing the mystery at the heart of banality.