Montreal-based filmmaker Anne Emond amply fulfills the promise of her first feature, the sexually charged two-hander “Nuit #1,” with “Our Loved Ones,” a more densely populated but equally arresting and even more emotionally potent film about a Quebecois family forced to cope with the stealthy legacy of its patriarch. The pitch-perfect performances and graceful storytelling should guarantee an extended run on the global fest circuit, and the potential theatrical audience might extend beyond arthouse habitues if distributors can convey how realistically yet sympathetically the film deals with its subject matter.
After the paterfamilias of the Leblanc family hangs himself, for reasons only gradually revealed as the narrative progresses, David (Maxim Gaudette), the eldest of his five children, carries on the family business of constructing and selling marionettes. For years, he lives what appears to be an idyllic life with his wife, Marie (Valerie Cadieux), and their two children in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region. Evidently, there is quite a steady demand for his handiwork — so David is able to employ his brother Andre (Mickael Gouin) as an assistant, despite his younger sibling’s hard drinking and unreliable work habits.
All seems to be going well until David is backhanded by the past: He learns, years after the fact, that his father did not die of a heart attack, as he was told by other family members, but committed suicide due to his chronic depression. Why was he shielded from the truth? Because, David is told, he was considered too “sensitive” to deal with such painful knowledge.
Right from the start, Emond unfolds her story in a teasingly elliptical fashion, often skipping over years between scenes and hinting at, rather than emphasizing, major developments. At first, this fast-forward approach is mildly amusing — David’s evolution from flirtatious bachelor to dutiful family man feels only slightly less brisk than a teen-to-grownup montage in a TV commercial. But as “Our Loved Ones” continues and the audience gets on Emond’s wavelength, it becomes clear that, even as the pace deaccelerates, the filmmaker is focused on essentials in each new scene, and every revelation is bound to have a payoff.
Sure enough, shortly after the “sensitive” element is introduced, David becomes progressively less affable, to the point where each smile appears to be merely a fleeting victory over melancholy. Family ties are strained — Andre departs after being called on the carpet for his capricious behavior — and David’s smiles appear ever more infrequently. The day inevitably dawns when Laurence (Karelle Tremblay), David’s elder offspring, must consider the possibility that, as she stands on the verge of full adulthood, she may inherit the legacy that her father inherited from his.
“Our Loved Ones” is by no means an incessantly somber piece of work. There are many glimpses of happy family gatherings and day-to-day interactions — some of them playfully suggesting that David was a one-hit-wonder as a songwriter — and a few sweetly affecting sequences that detail how Laurence falls in love. Even during the latter scenes, however, Emond covertly plants portents, the meaning of which become clear only much later. “Our Loved Ones” will likely reward a second viewing (or at least a long replay in one’s head) with better appreciation for the sheer skill with which Emond keeps the truths hidden in plain sight from start to finish.
The cast is exceptional across the board — particularly Louise Turcot’s performance in the brief but crucial role of David’s widowed mother — but Gaudette emerges as first among equals with his vivid yet understated, cumulatively heartbreaking portrayal of David. Special credit also must go to Tremblay, who effortlessly elicits so much empathy from the audience that, when Laurence takes off for a brief trip to Barcelona, you can’t help thinking the poor girl really does deserve a holiday. But once she arrives at her destination, you can’t help fearing the worst.
Although “Our Loved Ones” spans a roughly three-decade period, Emond and her production team take an aptly subtle approach to indicating the passing of time and the aging of characters. But if you’ve never been a fan of Blind Melon’s “No Rain,” be forewarned — it is heard on the soundtrack here just often enough to guarantee you’ll be humming it, whether you want to or not, for days afterward.