With everything from ghosts floating out of the bigscreen to one-eyed circus freaks, “The Countess of Baton Rouge” is yet another slice of cinematic magic realism from seasoned Quebec auteur Andre Forcier, and he once again delivers a memorable, if wildly uneven, piece of Felliniesque filmmaking. This love story about an aspiring young director in the 1960s who falls for a beautiful, bearded circus performer is full of imaginative flourishes, but the lack of an emotional center and a convoluted plot will hurt pic’s chances of reaching mainstream auds.
The latest Forcier film will likely attract some festival interest, but it will be a tough sell theatrically. Montreal distrib France Film will generate a bit of specialized action in French Canada, where pic is set to open on several screens June 13, but it will reach a wider audience only once it makes its way to French-lingo TV. “Countess” opened the Montreal Festival of Cinema and New Media (formerly the Montreal Festival of New Cinema) on June 5.
Strange story starts in the present, with filmmaker Rex Prince (Robin Aubert) in a cinema listening to a young projectionist (Michele-Barbara Pelletier) telling him about the phantom that’s been invading the screenings of Rex’s film. Story zips back to the ’60s and shows Rex, at the time a somewhat crazed, paranoid, Marxist director, making his first film, a pic about poverty in Montreal.
He meets up with an editor, Edouard Dore (Gaston Lepage), who agrees to work on the pic with him, and it is thanks to Edouard’s influence that Rex ends up at an amusement park one night checking out the bizarre characters in the “Creatures” tent. One of the freaks-of-nature on display is the one-eyed Cyclops-like figure Le Grand Zenon (Frederic Desager), a buddy of Edouard’s who astonishes the young director by projecting images on a silver screen without the aid of either film stock or projector.
The same fateful night Rex is introduced to and almost immediately falls in love with Paula Paul de Nerval (Genevieve Brouillette), an attractive young performer who happens to sport some fairly developed facial hair. Just hours later, the enigmatic bearded seductress heads off to join the Cirque du Bonheur in Louisiana. A few months later, Rex jumps into his vintage Edsel and motors down to the bayou in search of his love. He joins Paula’s circus as the human cannonball in an effort to be close to her.
At this point, pic becomes even stranger by shifting into a film-within-the-film titled “La Comtesse de Baton Rouge,” an autobiographical pic made by Rex three decades later that chronicles his love affair with Paula. Last half of the film recounts their story via long excerpts from Rex’s pic, with fictional actors Maria Capra (Isabel Richer) and Roy Tranquille (David Boutin) playing Paula and Rex.
Forcier succeeds in maintaining the poetic, surreal mood for the first 45 minutes, but he will severely strain most viewers’ patience with the final section. As the relationship between Rex and Paula degenerates into wacky, burlesque comedy toward the end, the story loses its force.
Aubert, who looks uncannily like a young version of Forcier, has a wry charm as Rex, while Brouillette is suitably mysterious and sexy (even with the beard) as Paula. Most supporting players deliver strong perfs, notably Lepage, who makes the most of his small amount of screen time.
Andre Turpin’s lensing and Claude Pare’s art direction contribute mightily to the dreamlike look of the pic, and ultra-talented Montreal jazz guitarist Michel Cusson adds to the atmosphere with a rich score that includes goofy circus ditties, twangy ’60s guitar riffing and New Orleans-style rocking.