Viking Stéphane Lafleur

The Quebec film Viking imagines a world of constant rehearsals

We spoke with filmmaker Stéphane Lafleur (Tu Dors Nicole) and actress Larissa Corriveau about their new high-concept absurdist comedy, which bears some resemblance to Nathan Fielder’s latest series.

Stéphane Lafleur’s latest film, Viking, opens with our lead character, played by Steve Laplante, taking a personality quiz. “I wanted it to open on his face and (for the audience) to discover who he is in the fastest time possible,” explains Lafleur. The effect is destabilizing. Who is this man? What is the purpose of this quiz? Although the questions are about his dreams, emotions and goals, he seems afraid to answer incorrectly. 

Despite having a wife and child, our protagonist wants a second chance at life and an opportunity to follow his dreams. Soon we find out that he’s applying for an experimental pilot project. To better solve human problems on a two-year mission to Mars, NASA is searching for personality matches to create a rehearsal space to work through challenges their astronauts may encounter. When selected, he leaves everything behind to assume his new identity as “David.” 

Lafleur’s films have always bordered on the surreal, capturing the strangeness of our life experiences through boredom and routine. In many ways, Viking stands out as his most ambitious film. It’s “a science fiction that also isn’t one,” says Lafleur. Working with the limits imposed by the smaller budgets and restrictions offered by the Quebec film industry, Lafleur was also inspired by the photographs of Vincent Fournier. Fournier created large-scale photos of astronauts lost in desolate landscapes. Lafleur also found inspiration in a documentary on Voyager 1 and 2 that showed how NASA created multiple versions of the probes so they could troubleshoot any problems from Earth. Lafleur wondered what it would look like if they tried something like that but with people. 

Though the film is funny, along with writer Eric K. Boulianne, Lafleur was careful not to let the movie become a parody or a farce. “We need to tell our story outside of the concept. The palette, the environment all came into that,” says Lafleur.

Much of the film takes place in a bunker-like location filled with old computers and institutional decor. Every morning, the participants receive a small note spit out of a computer with a flashing red light describing the real astronaut’s mood, goals or needs. In a long-term rehearsal process, they try to work through the problems and tensions as best as possible in the hopes of averting an outer space crisis. 

“Part of it is about a man confronting his greatest dream and finding it disappointing, not what he expected. This gap between expectation and reality,” explains Lafleur. For David, his second chance, the promise of the life he wants, can’t help but be disappointing. As the people around him take the experiment on with varying levels of seriousness, he’s torn by a desire to be an imagined version of himself and the reality that he’s unable to escape his true self. 

Viking Stéphane Lafleur Steve Laplante
Viking, starring Steve Laplante, Larissa Corriveau and more

Alongside Laplante is an all-star cast of actors, forced to interact with each other in a simulacrum of people they’ve never met. Among them is Larissa Corriveau as Steven. From the beginning, Steven seems to take the work the least seriously; but as the plot deepens, her motives become more ambiguous. The ambiguity of Steven’s intentions was at the heart of Corriveau’s interest in the role. “I saw her as someone who had nothing left to lose,” says Corriveau over the phone. 

Corriveau has had a standout year, also appearing in Denis Côté’s Un été comme ça. She was first attracted to the “incongruity of the premise” and how the film reflected how we see ourselves from an outsider’s perspective, living our lives from the outside, as if we were witnesses rather than participants in our own life experiences. “Having seen Stéphane’s other films, I knew he would take the story somewhere wacky, poetic but also tender.” 

Working with Lafleur, piecing together Steven was about establishing clear choices, determining her intentions and when they may change. “The character leads us to believe something about who she is, which turns out to be the opposite by the film’s end,” says Corriveau. The film featured very little rehearsal time, but they could do many takes on set. “Stéphane is a director who knows exactly what he wants, but at the same time, he has absolute confidence in all his collaborators. It’s like a happy marriage. We did takes until he got what he wanted, and then let us explore and play,” explains Corriveau. 

As with her role as Léonie in Un été comme ça, Steven is an outsider, a character living on the margins. “Maybe that’s part of what attracts me, too,” she says. Corriveau recognizes something singular in the vision and practice of both Côté and Lafleur that excites her as an artist and pushes her training as an actor in new directions. “Each character I play forces me to open up to new forms and sensitivities that aren’t necessarily my own.”

“Maybe it sounds kitsch,” she says. “But playing certain roles and characters opens up new perspectives for me as a human being. If that wasn’t the case, I can’t see any use for acting as a job. If I’m an actress or an artist, it’s first and foremost to question how I see the world through my work with collaborators like Stéphane, Denis or (co-star) Marie Brassard. They push me in new directions in my practice as an actor, but also in a more spiritual sense.” 

On the eve of the film’s release at TIFF, we were just a few weeks out from the season finale of The Rehearsal, which bears some similarities to the project. Nathan Fielder’s show features real people “rehearsing” to prepare for significant life events, like confessing a secret or practising being a parent. Speaking with Lafleur, he had just watched the season finale the night before. Over the pandemic, he had watched Nathan for You and How to With John Wilson, which Fielder produces. He’s a big fan. 

“We were in post-production when I first heard about The Rehearsal, and I thought, ‘Oh no, we’re doing the same thing!’ There are similarities, but they’re so different. What (Fielder) is doing with nonfiction is so interesting,” he says. The projects have fundamentally different approaches, though and complement each other well. Both speak to a similar truth about the contemporary condition; the plurality of identity, online and off, and our discomfort with the unexpected. 

Although Lafleur doesn’t have social media, he was aware of the parallels with a desire to build personas. “I thought about it a lot,” he says. “You can create a false personality, and people have false views of each other and even reality.” Even when we know it’s fake, it’s as if we want to believe the lie. ■

Viking, directed by Stéphane Lafleur

Viking opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Sept. 30.

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