In contrast to the streetwise grit of his last feature, 2008’s very good “Straight From the Heart,” Montreal writer-director Stephane Gehami’s new “My Enemies” has the feel of a rarefied, artificial chamber piece, recalling those European art films of yore in which high-strung aristocratic and artistic types went through “I love you! I hate you! I love you!” histrionics without much relation to psychological realism. Starring Quebec stage/screen veteran Louise Marleau as an elderly grande dame still queening it over a household of otherwise rudderless men, this indie drama is elegantly crafted yet neither convincing nor stylized enough to pull off its rather theatrical conceit. Prospects beyond the fest circuit will be modest.
After a spat with his girlfriend, Cedric (Frederic Lemay) storms out of their apartment — scrawling “STUPID COW” on the refrigerator door for good measure — taking only an unfinished first novel with him. Cooling heels on a chilly Montreal street bench, he’s drawn in by the lights and music emanating from an old house directly across. Inside he finds Isabelle (Marleau) at her grand piano; she’s an erstwhile concert recitalist who now plays just for herself. Perceiving a kindred soul, she invites the newly homeless youth to join her stable of alleged boarders — “slackers, welfare recipients, alcoholics, junkies” who are considerably junior to the well-preserved septuagenarian, and none of whom ever seem to actually pay their rent.
As the newest, youngest addition and thus Madame’s current favorite, Cedric is both tolerated and resented — the latter in particular by senior “boy” Victor (Jean-Francois Casabonne). The only resident who has an outside girlfriend is heroin-addicted musician Columbo (Hubert Proulx), whose long-suffering waitress squeeze, Lyne (Marie-Annick Blais), attracts Cedric’s fleeting interest, too. But mostly our protagonist flutters like yet another moth around his mistress, the two maddeningly alike in their petulant, demanding, mercurial, “artistic” mood swings.
A little of that personality type goes a long way, especially since we’re never fully convinced that either party is actually gifted enough to justify their swanning about like misunderstood geniuses. Nor is it clear just how big a grain of salt Gehami intends us to view them with. Though there are moments of skeptical insight (as when Cedric rails against the publishing-house editor who informs him his book is being dropped after too many self-defeating rewrites), too often these brats of widely separated generations seem meant to be taken at sympathetic face value. It’s hard to agree with Cedric’s late assessment that Isabelle is “unparalleled in her ability to live beautifully,” when so much behavior here skates dangerously close to a parody of tantrum-throwing creative temperament.
Made, like “Straight From the Heart,” largely without any conventional government or other outside funding, “My Enemies” is contrastingly old-school in its air of aesthetic refinement, particularly via Michel La Veaux’s handsome lensing. Yet it stops short of the more baroque stylization and decadent atmosphere that might have made this slight but too often pretentious tale feel otherworldly rather than anachronistic.
The leads throw themselves into their self-absorbed, emotionally grandiose characters with impressive commitment; sketchier support figures are also well turned (including “Heart’s” principals in small roles).