Expertly laced with visual humor, “Sabali” is a gorgeously stylized, wryly comic drama about a train-ticket seller with heart and relationship problems. Canadian multihyphenate Ryan McKenna’s appealing sophomore feature establishes a languorous and surreal tone that might be described as a wondrous hybrid of the work of his compatriots Guy Maddin and Stephane Lafleur. (Given that McKenna is a former member of the Winnipeg Film Group, now based in Montreal, it makes perfect sense.) Niche arthouse distributors and fests in search of distinctive new talent should appreciate the film’s quirky vibe, which manages to include a cameo (and music) by the blind Malian musical duo Amadou & Mariam.
From the very first moments, helmer McKenna and producer/art director/costume designer Becca Blackwood establish a dreamy parallel world, featuring costumes in eye-popping primary colors, timeless-looking locations, and peculiar people and conversations that wouldn’t be out of place in Twin Peaks. Clad in the bright red uniform of her fictional railway employer, thirtysomething Jeannette (Quebec cult icon Marie Brassard) staffs a ticket window at a suburban Montreal station. It’s an easy desk job that she can handle despite her severe heart ailment. Her fellow ticket clerks are heavily pregnant, but alas, babies don’t seem to be in Jeannette’s future. Her passive-aggressive live-in boyfriend, Bruno (Hugo Giroux), has refused to have sex with her for two years.
Jeannette knows she deserves more, so she starts seeing Albert (Francis La Haye), a younger man who works on the trains with her uncle Alphonse (Michel Forget), the smiling, white-bearded poster boy for the railway. The sex is good, and Albert is far more attentive than Bruno (he brings flowers and naive paintings that he makes on tree rings) during Jeannette’s heart transplant and recovery. All seems to be going well, except for her nightmares (beautifully and viscerally visualized) about being attacked by a man with a knife while at a swimming pool full of pregnant women, wearing red swimsuits with white polka dots and bright red lipstick.
Jeannette’s doctor (Paul Ahmarani) explains that organs can retain cellular memories and that her Malian donor was a murder victim. It’s a tribute to the film’s idiosyncratic tone that this announcement feels perfectly natural yet also humorous, and that Jeannette can ID the murderer from photos.
After Alphonse reveals a secret about Albert, Jeannette stops seeing him, but a new man enters her life in the form of her donor’s teen son, Chibale (Youssef Camara), who believes that she is his mother reincarnated. As Jeannette samples the Malian lifestyle, she finds new pleasures in life and new people to care about.
The versatile McKenna draws the never-overstated humor from situations, sounds and visuals, rather than from character. Although he also works as an editor here, he favors mise en scene over montage, preferring a fixed camera and movement within his perfectly composed frames. At the Vancouver world premiere, he spoke about his inspirations, which were primarily visual. He noted that one of his former professors told him, “If you have a good story, the symbolism will just be there.” And it’s true, Freudians should have a field day with “Sabali,” ferreting out other hidden desires besides the wish to have a child.
The thesping style is an emotive deadpan, which works perfectly with the surreal world McKenna and Blackwood create. Kudos to Brassard for bravely essaying a demanding and revealing (literally and figuratively) role.
Amadou & Mariam sing movingly at the funeral for Chibale’s mother and appear in a recurring flashback involving a garden. Pic scored best Canadian film kudos at the recent Montreal New Cinema fest.