Narcissus and Saint Sebastian, long twinned queer cultural icons, are the structural backbone of Bruce LaBruce’s “Saint-Narcisse.” Importing the mythology of those figures — a beautiful young man in ecstasy, lovingly staring at his own reflection; a lithe male body in agony, pierced by arrows all around — the Canadian filmmaker has crafted a dizzying drama about a young man wrestling with his queer desires, and even queerer family history.
Dominic (Felix-Antoine Duval) ambles through life as if in a daydream. Introduced at the local laundromat, he hardly notices anything around him — even, or especially, once he starts having sex right then and there, for all to see, with a young girl waiting for the dryer. His eyes focus instead on a vision of a man who looks not unlike himself, whose face is shrouded by a monk’s robes. More adrift by the time his ailing grandmother passes away, Dominic aims to ground himself by looking for the mother he’d been led to believe had long died. A string of letters, hidden from him for years, lead him out of the city and to a ramshackle cabin in the woods where whispers of a pair of witches preface his arrival.
As he uncovers his family background, and meets in turn both his mother and her younger lover, Dominic keeps seeing flashes of himself at the nearby monastery. Dominic’s obsession with himself, which could be easily dismissed as toxic narcissism, is slowly revealed to be more primal than that. As LaBruce slowly unravels this near-preposterous plot — which includes twins separated at birth, lesbian love affairs and a depraved priest with a fetish for St. Sebastian — “Saint-Narcisse” plunges us deeper and deeper into a world that revels in transgressions. It helps that even moments that aim to shock, like that of a young girl in her pram watching her mother go down on a pregnant woman or that of a young man masturbating as he self-flagellates with a whip, the dreamlike, near-hypnotic vibe of the film lures you away from whatever judgment you may be ready to dole out, to filmmaker or character alike.
Shot by Michel La Veaux (“Le Démantèlement,” “La disparition des lucioles”), the film has a decidedly vintage look. It doesn’t just visually evoke the early 1970s but offers a retro sensibility that makes the entire period piece feel like one of the many Polaroids Dominic takes of himself, capturing a vibrant immediacy within its tinted lens. But there’s no datedness to it at all. Dominic may carry around a camera that came out the year the movie’s set (1972), but his self-portraits cannot help but feel like selfies avant-la-lettre. It’s as if LaBruce were intent on making his audiences look into a funhouse mirror wherein our compulsion for photos of ourselves (“He only takes pictures of himself. I mean, who does that?” ) is presented as wholly alien yet necessary to achieve any kind of self-knowledge.
“Saint-Narcisse” crescendos when such quest for self-knowledge (in ways of both literal and Biblical) lead Domnic to stand (naked, of course) in front of his doppelganger, a young monk in training who’s involved in a non-consensual sadomasochistic relationship with an older man at the monastery. Duval, who’s all chiseled cheekbones and sly smirks, is beguiling as the central twins Dominic and Daniel. You immediately understand why he’d be so into himself, and why everyone around him is so smitten by his disarming looks. Thus, even when he’s playing opposite himself (and likely, a body double), he grounds the scenes no matter how improbable the dialogue.
Indeed, the film is littered with literate epigrams that hint at the ambitious themes LaBruce is gleefully interweaving into his lusty romp of a plot. Lines and moments of dialogue that add to the heightened sensibility that runs through “Saint-Narcisse”: “If you want to live a long life, handsome,” a sex worker tells Dominic, “never try to know yourself.” Later, Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis) tells Daniel, “That is where God lives … In beauty.”
Yet LaBruce never lets his characters sound too pedantic; his signature dark sense of humor comes through just as easily. A line like, “Fine. Then go fuck yourself!” for instance, manages to take on a whole new meaning when directed at a young man who lustfully gazes at polaroids of himself, who finds solace and release in his own reflection, and who eventually seeks comfort and delirium in the arms of one who looks just like him.
The tricky tonal balance of “Saint-Narcisse” — which swings wildly between heady, intellectual propositions about duality and the sanctity of the profane and salty, steamy scenes that feel right at home in a softcore porn film — feels quintessentially LaBruce. Always writing — and shooting — from the margin, here the Canadian filmmaker has found a narrative that lets him gleefully upend the very notion of a sexual taboo. With his final tableau, where he’s queered and reshaped the idyllic nuclear family, LaBruce leaves us with an image that begs us to divest from the rigid norms it so flaunts, a winking invitation wrapped in a coy smirk.