Film Review: 'The Manor'

There's more than a faint echo of 'Grey Gardens' in this Canadian-gothic portrait of an unusual family business

There’s more than a faint echo of “Grey Gardens” resonating within “The Manor,” documaker Shawney Cohen’s Canadian-gothic portrait of his family business: a struggling strip joint and hotel in a suburb outside Toronto. Self-delusion and denial are as plentiful as the bare flesh undulating inside the Cohen clan’s showcase of pole dancing, oil wrestling and “foxy boxing,” but the director himself, who narrates, provides a healthy dose of skepticism, expressing misgivings about not just the club but the whole family dynamic. Theatrical exposure seems uncertain, but the Hot Docs opener could flourish as a VOD title.

It’s hard not to sympathize with a narrator who recalls how he asked for hockey pads for his bar mitzvah and got a lap dance instead. The thirtysomething helmer has grown up with the Manor, which his father, Roger, bought 30 years earlier. Roger, too, has grown: Now in his 60s, he is unhealthily obese, and his battle with his weight becomes one of the docu’s key subtexts. Providing a violent contrast is Brenda Cohen, Roger’s wife and Shawney’s mother; any viewer can see, from the first time she appears onscreen, that the birdlike women has an eating disorder. While there’s a certain metaphoric resonance to the Cohens’ dueling physiques, the viewer also feels a more literal sense of urgency about the woman’s health, especially after her cache of purgatives is found in a kitchen cabinet.

In many other ways, “The Manor” is a sitcom: Dad is dictatorial and cheap, Mom has checked out, and son Sammy is the hustler in the family, the type that flourishes inside a club catering to a sometimes sketchy clientele with a dubious workforce. Shawney would rather be off making films. In anyone else’s hands, the documentary could have been a mere exercise in exploitation, but the director’s emotional investment in the place and the people who run it soften the film’s critical edge without sparing the audience any of the all-too-evident dysfunction.

The question the film ultimately asks is whether the Cohens are much different from any other family. Yes, they run an unusual business, one that exists on the margins of “respectable” society, but their problems are basically ones of disposition and character: Roger has gastric-bypass surgery, but never loses his appetite; Brenda tries one session of therapy and never goes back. The brothers have a remarkably candid conversation while hitting a bucket of balls at a local driving range, but the upshot is stasis. The Manor itself is selling naked flesh; “The Manor” is selling a very naked kind of portraiture, sometimes uncomfortable to watch but ultimately thought-provoking.

Production values generally meet the demands of the subject matter, and the use of music is particularly smart.

The Manor
(Documentary — Canada)

Reviewed online, New York, April 4, 2013. (In Hot Docs Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 78 MIN.

A Six Island presentation in association with TVO, Shaw Media-Hot Docs and the Tribeca Film Institute. Produced by Paul Scherzer. Executive producers, Paul Scherzer, Laurie Gwen Shapiro.

Directed by Shawney Cohen. Co-director, Mike Gallay. Camera (color, HD), Chris Mably, Gallay; editor, Seth Poulin; music, Jim Guthrie; sound, Tyler Cook; supervising sound editor, Dale Lennon; re-recording mixers, Keith Elliott, Lucas Roveda; visual effects supervisor, Matt Crookshank; visual effects, Remote Ctrl.

With: Roger Cohen, Brenda Cohen, Sammy Cohen, Shawney Cohen.

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