Death of a ladies man leonard cohen gabriel byrne matt bissonnette

Death of a Ladies Man uses Leonard Cohen songs as a surrealist springboard

Gabriel Byrne stars alongside a who’s who of Montreal actors in Matt Bissonnette’s ambitious new film.

It’s difficult to describe exactly how Death of a Ladies’ Man relates to Leonard Cohen. His music appears throughout and is sometimes even presented in the form of musical sequences, but it’s not a jukebox musical. There are ostensibly parallels to be drawn between the general demeanour of the literature professor played by Gabriel Byrne and Cohen, but he’s hardly meant as a doppelganger or stand-in. Cohen is mentioned textually by characters, but it’s not as if his words, music and general philosophies are explicitly guiding the film. Death of a Ladies’ Man has more to do with literature than poetry in its approach, though its attempts to spin magical realism and surrealistic imagery out of the music of Leonard Cohen ultimately proves to be weight that the film can’t quite carry. 

Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) is a 60-something literature professor in Montreal who comes home to find his younger wife (Carolina Bartczak) cheating on him with a younger man. Distraught, the already heavily drinking professor goes on a bender that soon begins to bring forth trippy images (a tiger-headed female bodybuilder greets him and his daughter, played by Karelle Tremblay, in a restaurant) and worrisome conversations with his long-dead father (Brian Gleeson) that suggest something other than heartbreak might be at hand. As he struggles with his impending mortality and attempts to reconnect with his Irish roots, O’Shea’s Cohen-centric visions become more prevalent. 

Death of a Ladies’ Man is split up into three chapters, the first of which leans heavily on Byrne’s characterization of the macho intellectual professor that has typified works by John Irving or Philip Roth. It’s not exactly original — I feel like any mental image of Gabriel Byrne has him in a tweed jacket and a scarf pontificating, regardless of how often he’s actually played that role — but director Matt Bissonnette works his way through rather organically, creating a character and a world (which also includes his ex-wife, played by Suzanne Clément, and his hockey player son, played by Antoine Olivier Pilon) that immediately feels lived-in and realistic. When the first bursts of magical realism (a choreographed dance performed by Pilon’s hockey teammates) happen, it’s charming in a low-key, somewhat off-kilter way. The budget clearly doesn’t allow for extremely complicated setpieces, but the gamble pays off. 

Death of a Ladies Man
Jessica Paré and Gabriel Byrne in Death of a Ladies Man

As the film progresses, however, these bursts of surrealism become increasingly commonplace and the line between what’s real and what isn’t becomes blurred. Again: so far, so good. Death of a Ladies’ Man proves considerably more ambitious than its logline may suggest, but the problem comes precisely in that blurring of those lines. It’s one thing that weird shit keeps happening to the main character; it’s a whole other thing when the “real life” margins suddenly become fraught with soap opera drama, drug addiction and various other téléroman concerns. What originally comes across as whimsical surrealism soon feels more like forced experimentation, and that aforementioned surrealism doesn’t quite have the torque required to take up so much of the film.

Left-field narrative twists soon turn out to be hallucinations, but not always; long stretches of the film are devoted to things that never actually happened, while very serious things happen in the margins, leading up to a curiously leaden last chapter that sees half-formed ideas pile up. There’s just too much coming too fast. Any movie would likely stumble with the onslaught of narrative ideas contained within. Death of a Ladies’ Man ultimately collapses under the weight of its own ambition, saddled with too many ideas and tangents to truly be satisfying. It’s far from a complete wash, of course. It’s always nice to see Byrne in a leading role, and the film’s deliberate humour works better than its deliberate surrealism or overt poetry.

It’s also, in spite of it all, a pretty good celebration of Leonard Cohen’s body of work. Even in its weirdest moments (which include a dance scene with Mike Paterson and Anthony Kavanagh, of all people), Death of a Ladies’ Man has palpable affection for Cohen and doesn’t necessarily focus solely on a greatest-hits package. (There is the inevitable “Hallelujah” needle drop which works about as well as one would expect, though I must extend kudos to Bissonnette for even trying to surgically extricate the corn from that particular drop.) It’s difficult to reconcile whatever the intention may have been with what Death of a Ladies’ Man ultimately winds up being, but as a tribute to a man with a strange, lopsided, sometimes contradictory body of work, it winds up being a fairly accurate one. ■

Death of a Ladies Man opens in theatres on Friday, March 19 and is available on VOD now. For more details about the film, please visit its IMDB page. Watch the trailer below:

Death of a Ladies Man starring Gabriel Byrne, directed by Matt Bissonnette

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