Even members of the One Percent may feel frozen out by “Boris Without Beatrice,” a brittle, no-joke comedy of unchecked privilege that maintains the tone of social satire without ever alighting on a specific target. Less funny than it is breezy — with the zephyr that runs through it a consistently cold one — Quebecois auteur Denis Cote’s typically classification-resistant new oddity asks for more psychological engagement than most auds will be willing to offer the character of Boris (James Hyndman), a vastly wealthy right-wing industralist fumbling his way toward reconnection with his severely melancholia-stricken wife. Though the pic commendably withholds moral judgment on damaged people it would be dully easy to vilify, it’s hard to say what wisdom — beyond the fact that no amount of money can fill a certain marital crevasse — we gain from 90 minutes in their curdled, unhappy company.
Cote’s last feature, 2013’s deadpan, Berlin-awarded lesbian romance “Vic + Flo Saw a Bear,” saw modest gains in the international distribution market for his curious worldview. He may experience something of a commercial backslide, however, with this even more stiffly mannered offering, though it does further its maker’s reputation as an archbishop of arch — and gives itself at least one shot at cult status with a broadly eccentric role for a gurning, menacing Denis Lavant. Lately embracing his portfolio as a kind of just-add-water accessory for filmmakers in pursuit of upscale strangeness, Lavant lasciviously delivers Tantalus-referencing portents of doom, rocks the hell out of a bejeweled, peach-colored tunic and generally appears to be having a good time — which places him in a minority of one in this otherwise austere, cocaine-white environment.
The pic’s uncontextualized opening scenes sound a note of urgent, queasy intrigue that, as the drama unfolds in more prosaic fashion, goes largely unconsummated. Tall, crisply attired and suavely slapheaded, Boris is first shown stoically weathering the vibrations of a landing helicopter in a rural field — a quasi-Hitchcockian intro to which the narrative circles back, to anticlimactic effect, some way past the halfway mark. This apparent puzzle piece then fades into the film’s most successfully sustained comic interlude, as Boris agitatedly antagonizes a cashier at the pristine clothing boutique where he’s topping up his seemingly bottomless collection of two-ply dress shirts. Refusing her persistent requests for voluntary customer data, he takes a fleeting stand against bourgeois corporate hegemony — though it soon emerges that he’s hardly an unblemished vessel for such ideals.
Instead, Boris comes to personify what many liberals, including members of his own family, find loathsome about patriarchal power structures in finance and society. A successful, self-made entrepreneur of Russian origin, he has seemingly used his fortune for little but his own material gain, haughtily railing against any institution — be it high-end retail outlets troubling him for contact details, or the local council that won’t pave his stretch of country road — that causes him transient inconvenience. He has found a coordinating high flyer in his wife Beatrice (Simone-Elise Gerard), a Canadian government minister of unspecified portfolio, who has recently suffered a highly publicized nervous breakdown. Now bedridden and borderline-catatonic, she herself appears to symbolize a critical disorder at the top of the power ladder, yet Cote’s obstinately opaque script — despite winkingly introducing a prime minister in the distinctly un-Trudeauvian form of Bruce LaBruce — won’t be drawn into any specific political commentary.
Boris’s nettled concern for Beatrice does not preclude his habitual on-the-sly philandering — either with steely mistress Helga (Dounia Sichov) or his wife’s ingenuous caretaker, Karla (Isolda Dychauk). But someone, somewhere, is eyeing his every duplicitous move, as he learns in a cloak-and-dagger meeting with Lavant’s unnamed oracle, who bluntly declares Boris himself the sole cause of Beatrice’s intractable anguish.
Like a shruggingly ironic spin on Michael Haneke’s “Cache,” this uncanny (or Lavantcanny) encounter plunges our urbane alpha male into a spiral of self-doubt, as he considers whether selfishness has righteously undone his perfect life, or whether he’s being unduly punished for his hard-earned but unshared success. Either way, he’s a rigidly unsympathetic presence on which to build the film: Hyndman’s performance lends the character an imposing, enameled dignity, but it’s as hard to root for this cipher as it is to revel in his potential downfall. If that’s at least partly the point — the need for depoliticized light and shade in evaluating figures of power — it sits at odds with Cote’s otherwise rigorously heightened style, which builds black-and-white polarities into its own spartan-chic production design.
As Boris follows an increasingly dream-like bread-crumb trail to nebulous redemption, the stakes remain too low, and the irony too thin, for his quest to register as anything more than anecdotal. In press notes, Cote claims his story has universal resonance, though it reveals few broad human truths beyond the myopic impasses in communication that can stall any happy marriage — stark flashes of which are jaggedly cut in to the film’s sleeker overall design by editor Nicolas Roy, like subconscious visions of another life, and film, altogether. Even when Cote’s script veers into more unruly tonal territory — as in its disconnected, heavily queered invocations of Greek tragedy — it never quite sparks to either comic or dramatic life. “Hatred of the bourgeois is the beginning of virtue,” the film quotes Flaubert early on, a line which is only superficially apposite: “Boris Without Beatrice” carries feelings considerably more ambiguous than that, and never quite finds the beginning of anything.