Montreal-set film Malek explores the cultural shock of the cold

Actor Tewfik Jallab and filmmaker Guy Édoin on adapting a Rawi Hage novel (minus the man-size cockroach).

Tewfik Jallab and Karine Vanasse in Malek

Malek (Tewfik Jallab) is a Lebanese immigrant who lives a miserable life in Montreal. Jobless and essentially friendless but for the untrustworthy Reza (Mani Soleymanlou), he spends his days sleeping and his nights bumming food and drink. His most significant social interaction is with Geneviève (Karine Vanasse), a court-appointed psychologist who Malek is obliged to see after a failed suicide attempt. The trauma of what brought Malek to Montreal from Lebanon looms large in his life, and it’s only when he meets Iranian immigrant Shoreh (Hiba Abouk) that he finds a kindred spirit in that regard.

Malek is based on the novel Cockroach by Rawi Hage — a loose adaptation, in some respects, of a novel in which the protagonist regularly hallucinates a man-sized cockroach. Malek is also the first film directed by Guy Édoin that the filmmaker did not also write (the screenplay is by Claude Lalonde).

“These are still themes I’m relatively familiar with and that echo in the other films I’ve made,” says Édoin. “I also had been wanting to direct something I hadn’t written for a while — I wanted to give the screenwriter in me a break. It’s really the characters of Malek and Geneviève that made me want to get on-board and to explore the personality and psyche of Malek’s character – one that’s so dense and complex.

“In the book, he talks to himself by talking to this cockroach, right?” he continues. “I didn’t see how I could possibly pull that off. What I ended up making was more sensual, more organic. I mean, it’s a movie that will never exist, so we can talk about it all we want (laughs) but I think that movie would’ve been closer to something that David Cronenberg may have done. But I thought that a sensual approach made more sense, down to his relationship with women. His relationship is very much rooted in fantasy — in what he wants to do with them, in how he idealizes them.”

Édoin’s previous films — Marécages and Ville-Marie — are, to say it simply, pretty heavy. They’re movies permeated by tragedy, as is Malek; yet, for all the tragedies that power his latest film, it also feels like his most hopeful one yet.

“I think it might have to do with the fact that he didn’t write this one, that the genesis of the film came from somewhere else,” says Jallab. “It’s his first movie based on a story that already exists, and it means he had to sort of self-impose this luminosity that was already in the source material. It also means he had to mix it with the kind of cinema that inspires him and the kind of cinema that he makes. In mixing these together, he really did make something that was his, and that respects Rawi Hage’s work. I think that’s where the light comes from, and I think that all of these aspects made Guy feel a little more free than usual. Having someone else’s story to adapt did that.”

Both Édoin and Jallab are adamant that the film’s cross-cultural approach is key to its success. Written and directed by Québécois filmmakers, based on a book by a Lebanese-Canadian writer and starring an international cast (Jallab is French, Abouk is Spanish), Malek is intentionally uprooted in its approach.

“My approach was a human one,” says Édoin. “You can’t really go wrong looking at this character from a human perspective. And, yes, you know — from a Québécois point of view, because he is catapulted into this society. I relied on the novel a lot to construct the universe… and because the author of the book is Lebanese, I knew his point of view was accurate. All I did was translate the point of view, in fact.”

“It needed to be in the Occident, and the main character needed to be from an Oriental country,” says Jallab. “It needed to be a war-torn country — in this case it’s Lebanon, but it could be Syria or Iraq or any other country where refugees are coming from. In the book, they never specify, but the author being Lebanese lets us read between the lines. But basically it needed to be set in the West, somewhere where the culture, the weather and the behaviour was different. We could’ve set it anywhere, but it was set here, in Montreal. The cultural and geographical differences are important. The shock of the cold. I think we feel it immensely in the film — the shock of the cold, and I don’t necessarily mean weather. It’s the temperature between people, the temperature of tension. He lives in misery. His apartment is miserable. In the book, it’s much worse — there are cockroaches and filth everywhere. Guy put a little more light, a little more humanity in it.

“The character has this culture shock that pushes him to do the irreparable: to try to commit suicide. And he fails at that, too. He messes up his own suicide, which he sees as a monumental failure. When the film begins, this has already happened, so the viewer immediately feels sympathy for him. There’s something moving about seeing someone go through those steps and trying to get out of that headspace.”

The idea of the character’s alienation also applied to Jallab, in a way. Though the French-born actor has worked in Quebec before (notably with Wajdi Mouawad on stage), this was his first time working here completely alone — and in winter, to boot. In fact, Jallab lived in an apartment on top of Cinéma Beaubien for the duration of the shoot!

“It was interesting to me to come here with so few people knowing me,” he says. “It allowed me to present work that would be judged as if it were my first film. I’m excited to see people’s reactions to it here. I think if the film were to come out in France, critics and audiences would likely have a different reaction because they’d compare it to everything I’ve done before. It’s as if I’m starting all over again — I think it’s great! (laughs)” ■

Malek opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 18. Watch the trailer here: