Flirting with fiction & cinéma verité

Our critics weigh in on an American music film (that’s not quite a documentary) and a Quebec meditation of artwork, screening this week at the RIDM festival.

Willis Earl Beal in Memphis. Photo by Morgen Schuller
The Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal festival (RIDM) is on now. Here are two films screening tonight and Wednesday (with repeat screenings later this week):


Singer-songwriter Willis Earl Beal is the commanding centre of this experimental portrait from writer-director Tim Sutton. Beal spends the film wandering around the titular city, getting advice from friends, family and religious leaders, struggling to finish a record, and doing a lot of brooding. At first glance, it feels similar to the Nick Cave semi-doc 20,000 Days on Earth — a highly stylized and personalized portrait of an artist — except that Beal (or his character) isn’t an established success but a marginal artist, as tormented as Cave is supremely self-confident.

I say “character” because despite having a more or less documentary framework (and the fact that it’s playing in a documentary festival), upon a bit of research the film is a step or two even further removed from any notion of objective reality than 20,000 Days. For starters, Beal is from Chicago, not Memphis. And in some of the film’s press, he refers outright to playing a character, albeit one with a heavily autobiographical angle.

Largely funded by an initiative of the Venice Biennale, the film is more of the art world than either the documentary or fiction realms per se. Letting the viewer piece together what little story there is, Memphis relies heavily on atmosphere, and on the charisma of its star, whose impeccable fashion sense, lovely voice and tortured-artist swagger make it compulsively watchable. (Malcolm Fraser)

Memphis screens on Nov. 18 at Agora Hydro-Québec du pavillon Cœur des sciences (175 Président-Kennedy), 8:30 p.m., and Nov. 21 at Cinema du Parc (3575 Parc), 8:45 p.m. $11.50/$9.50 students/seniors

The Work of Days

The thing that drives low-key and slow-paced documentaries like this one by Quebec filmmaker Bruno Baillargeon (Les chercheurs d’or) is often the audience’s connections with its subjects. In this case, whether you like this film or not depends entirely on how interested you are in the works of Louis-Pierre Bougie, François-Xavier Marange and Denis Saint-Pierre, the three Montreal-based artists who are quietly followed by Baillargeon as they work on their respective artworks in their shared studio.

The three are visual artists who paint, work with copper engraving and have shared the same studio for several decades. No backstory or supplementary information is provided; we just gather that they’ve been working together for awhile from their natural chemistry and friendship. The only one Baillargeon seems to probe about his past is Marange, who we learn is suffering from cancer when he subtly refers to missing chemo.

Aside from that, the focus is on their process, with a small scene included where we see them trying to sell their works for a price range of $400 to $1,200. With this distance established between the viewer and the film’s subjects, it’s a bit odd that Baillargeon included his proximity to them. We often hear his little quips, or see his hand pop out from behind the camera to reach for a handshake; it’s the most intimate aspect of the film.

Marange’s eventual death is approached with cold silence; none of the other artists comment on it, we simply hear one of them on the phone with someone coming to get Marange’s stuff out of the studio.

In short, this might just be of interest to those who understand and are interested in the often-painstaking process of creating. For others, you might just be left wondering why you should care about watching these three guys bent over their works for over 90 minutes. (Roxane Hudon)

The Work of Days screens Nov. 19 at Excentris (3536 St-Laurent), 6:15 p.m. and Nov. 23 at Agora Hydro-Québec du pavillon Cœur des sciences (175 Président-Kennedy), 6:45 p.m. $11.50/$9.50 students/seniors
The Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal festival (RIDM) runs through Nov. 23. See the complete program here