A 20-something Quebecoise has some growing up to do in “Tu dors Nicole,” a sweetly absurd, wryly comic third feature from French-Canadian helmer Stephane Lafleur (“Continental, a Film Without Guns”). Vibrantly shot in textured black-and-white 35mm, this appealing Francophone indie displays a disciplined visual sense, a good ear for dialogue, and characters that become ever more endearing as the episodic action progresses. Further fest play is assured and niche arthouse distributors should wake to the pic’s quirky vibe, and Lafleur certainly deserves to be as well known outside Canada as his idiosyncratic compatriot auteurs Xavier Dolan and Denis Cote.
Lafleur’s films all center on likable, ordinary people dealing with the recognizable problems, frustrations and dreams of everyday life, yet they include a bit of magical realism, too, unfolding in timeless but unnamed suburban spaces with a small-town atmosphere. In contrast to the wintry environs of his sophomore pic, “Familiar Ground,” the delightful “Tu dors Nicole” unspools during a summer heat wave that proves highly cinematic, charged with the mood of a waking dream. The action consists of short vignettes that are connected by fades to black.
Protagonist Nicole (Julianne Cote, who resembles a young Sigourney Weaver) is a tart-tongued 22-year-old who still lives in her parents’ comfortable home. At first, her life seems the epitome of carefree: She has an undemanding job at a charity shop from which she illegally helps herself to the donated clothes; she casually hooks up with a guy she met at a party; and she spends loads of time doing nothing in particular with her pretty best friend, Veronique (excellent newcomer Catherine St-Laurent).
But Nicole is actually not so happy-go-lucky. Since her previous boyfriend dumped her, she has been troubled by insomnia and insecurity. She lacks goals (being the pant-cuffing queen of the north is obviously not enough) and is reluctant to take on adult responsibilities — just witness the casual nonchalance with which she regards the checklist of chores left by her vacationing parents and her profligate use of her new credit card. Lafleur uses Nicole’s sticky bicycle lock as a neat metaphor for the stuck place she finds herself in.
Nicole’s aimless summer brings her into contact with an assortment of odd and original characters. Of these, perhaps the most entertaining is tween Martin (Godefroy Reding), her former babysitting charge, who boasts a prematurely deep voice (courtesy of Alexis Lefebvre) and a precocious desire to get into her pants. Other amusing encounters include one with a man driving his car in circles in Nicole’s neighborhood in the middle of the night for surprising reasons, and a chance meeting with her former b.f .and his fiancee. While never overstating his humor, the versatile Lafleur draws it from situations, sounds and visuals rather than from character.
When Nicole’s older brother, quick-tempered rocker Remi (Marc-Andre Grondin), shows up at the house with band members JF (Francis La Haye) and Pat (Simon Larouche) to record an album, ensuing events test Nicole and Veronique’s longtime friendship.
As in his previous films, Lafleur maintains an impressive command of tone, the tenor of which may put some viewers in mind of Fernando Eimbcke’s “Duck Season,” Bouli Lanners’ “Eldorado” or almost anything by Aki Kaurismaki. Although he shares the dark humor and compassion displayed by the aforementioned helmers, the universe he crafts remains unique. The actors, some of whom have worked with Lafleur before, are entirely in tune with his intentions and display a beguiling chemistry.
Lafleur’s longtime lenser Sara Mishara provides luminous black-and-white images that play with textures, patterns, shades and contrasts. Topnotch production and costume design also work with these distinctions, and the score by Montreal musician Remy Nadeau-Aubin and the group Organ Mood contributes strongly to the pic’s unique ambience, as does the nifty sound design. Iceland and its geysers also play a small but important role.