La contemplation du mystère Albéric Aurtenèche

La contemplation du mystère: Finally, a film about hunting on psychedelic drugs

Albéric Aurtenèche’s new film stars Emmanuel Schwartz as a man caught up in arcane hunting rituals following his father’s death.

Éloi (Emmanuel Schwartz) returns to the small Quebec town where his father was killed a year prior and integrates his hunting group, a highly sectarian and pageantry-forward organization, as they pay homage to their fallen comrade. Pretty soon, the anxiety-ridden Éloi finds himself ensconced in the mystery of his father’s death — one that’s being kept quiet by the men in his group (Gilles Renaud, Martin Dubreuil, François Papineau) and by the sole woman in the group (Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse), all of whom seem to live in fear and awe of a mysterious hunter known as L’Indien.

La contemplation du mystère revolves around arcane hunting rituals that will seem rather elaborate to untrained eyes — but director Albéric Aurtenèche based the bedrock of the film on his actual experiences. 

“My entry point into hunting was when I was 15 or 16,” he explains. “I was the son of immigrants in Montreal and sort of trying to figure out who I was. A friend of the family brought me into a gang of hunting horn players – the same ones you see in the movie, in fact – and every year, they’d have a special mass for the Chevaliers de l’ordre de St-Hubert. The mass is meant to induct the new knights into the order.

“That was the starting point for my story. The reason why I decided to go deeper is that I wanted to make a movie about our relationship with death. I don’t mean it in the sense of loss or grief — I made sure to keep that at bay in the movie, it’s why his father’s death is in the past — but our relationship with death. I wanted to explore how society deals with it and what rites of passage are left nowadays. A hypothesis advanced by the film is that becoming a man — or becoming an adult, really — happens when you stop being afraid of death. Hunting is the last social activity that deals with death. Anyone could theoretically go out and hunt and live that relationship with death.

“There’s also something about masculinity to the whole hunting apparatus of the Chevaliers de Saint-Hubert,” he continues. “It’s a pretty obvious subtext. If you consider the antlers, the trophy that results from the hunt, as a phallic symbol, there’s a hilarious reading of the movie. Everyone’s running after the biggest possible dick! (laughs)”

“When I read the screenplay, I was already all in,” says Schwartz. “First off, because of all of the unknown within it. It’s the kind of cinema I like to watch as a viewer — movies that need to be rewatched, movies with pieces that don’t seem to fit together on the surface. You have this quest for meaning, this magical realism… all of this is a pizza I want to order. It knocked me on my ass. I have the luxury of having the type of projects I like as a viewer come to me as an artist, so it’s a match made in heaven.”

La contemplation du mystère
Emmanuel Schwartz and Sarah-Jeanne Labrosse in La contemplation du mystère

Another key aspect of La contemplation du mystère is a mystic quest through hallucinogens. Éloi is focused throughout the film on DMT and ayahuasca, which he thinks will help with his anxiety and possibly unlock the mystery surrounding his father’s death. 

“They’re two completely opposite, contradictory ideas,” says Aurtenèche. “When I was pitching the film, I described it as being about hunting and hallucinogens. (laughs) I had to do that work, because those things aren’t compatible! There’s a whole underground culture of hallucinogens that’s very present and, admittedly, has been since the counterculture of the ’60s and ’70s. Ayahuasca’s popularity  is relatively newer — it started being talked about in the ’80s and ’90s — but the main thing about it is that it’s not a fun drug. You can do some shrooms and go to a party as much as you can do a lot and have a spiritual experience. DMT and ayahuasca are not party drugs. You cannot have fun and be present in reality at the same time. When you do it, you don’t want reality to interfere. It’s a stressful thing that’s usually met with a lot of apprehension, because trip reports from people who have done it make it seem very intense. You meet entities that answer your questions about reality. You have to be ready to live an intense experience.”

“I don’t believe in any of it, really,” he continues. “I talk about religion and spiritual beliefs in the film, but I’m completely agnostic. But I’m intrigued by all these relationships with spirituality, because they’re things I wonder about as well. I know I’ll never find the answers, but anyone who tries to find these answers interests me,”

Schwartz spends a lot of the film alone with his anxiety, wandering the woods and, in one key scene, going on a mystical voyage augmented by some of the aforementioned psychedelics. 

“As an actor, it’s pretty pleasant to attack something this diversified,” says Schwartz. “It makes you feel like there’s space for everything you know how to do. There’s space for my thoughts, my questions, my problems… There’s so many places I can go. Cinema is great for that. It depicts reality, but not necessarily the exact specific reality of the moment. You can inject whatever you want in there, and the camera reads the truth — without knowing which one. This movie has three volume levels, in a way; we’re in the transformation of a character, which is a gift in itself. There isn’t just one note to play — you have to call upon the whole keyboard.”

There’s a sense of oppressive dread to La contemplation du mystère that leads one to assume that the film could, at any moment, turn into a horror movie – which it doesn’t really do, even if the film has much in common with a few pandemic-shot (La contemplation du mystère was shot pre-pandemic, in 2019) horror films like Ben Wheatley’s In the Earth and Jaco Bouwer’s Gaia — films that, like Aurtenèche’s, draw parallels between hallucinogenic imagery and the woods. The film is shot in a square 4:3 ratio, not exactly what you’d expect from a film where ayahuasca rituals figure prominently.

“It was director of photography Ian Lagarde’s idea,” explains Aurtenèche. “His thinking was that this story needs verticality. It’s a movie about transcendence, so it needs verticality. I resisted at first, because there was a part of me that wanted something larger. But it was the right idea in the end. It allows for two different things. First, verticality — you can capture the height of the trees and keep them very present in the frame. Second, it also allows the camera to be more narrative. We use a lot of pans and zooms. Had the frame been larger, it would’ve been more difficult to reveal things in that way.” ■

La contemplation du mystère opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 22.

La contemplation du mystère, directed by Albéric Aurtenèche

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