What to watch: Saint-Narcisse by Bruce LaBruce
As you’d expect from a film by Bruce LaBruce, there’s a lot to get your teeth into with Saint-Narcisse.
It’s dark, it’s sexy, it’s melodramatic.
Set in Montreal in 1972, the film gives us the story of Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval). Dominic has been raised by his grandmother, but her death uncovers the secret that – despite what he had been told – Dominic’s mother is actually alive. Dominic embarks on a search for his mother and, in the process, discovers much more than he bargained for.
The concept of narcissism is explored on a number of different levels – from taking polaroid selfies, to being aroused by your own image, to doppelgängers, divine reincarnation, and twincest.
I caught up with LaBruce for a behind-the-scenes look at the film.
You’ve talked about how this film was of a bigger scale and had a bigger budget than most of your film projects. Did the bigger budget help you realise the ambition of the story?
For Saint-Narcisse, I had my biggest budget yet – about twice as much as for my feature film Gerontophilia, both of which were shot in Montreal with fairly big union crews. Both films were funded by Quebecois financing agencies Quebec Telefilm and SODEC.
It was challenging for me to adjust to this kind of “industry-style” filmmaking as, up to that point, I had mostly made low-budget or no-budget guerrilla-style films without permits or rules – flying by the seat of my pants, grabbing locations along the way, often with no permission and police chasing us.
So, with these two films, it was much more orderly. We could block off streets – with the help of cops! – find locations that we didn’t have to rush out of in case we got caught, taking official dinners and coffee breaks. I would also get picked up reliably every day in an SUV with a hot latte waiting for me, instead of dragging myself out of bed and taking the U-Bahn to the set. But we were still shooting with less days than we needed, and it was challenging working with all the union rules – which are particularly strict in Quebec.
Of course, I was trying something more ambitious with Saint-Narcisse, and the bigger budget helped me realise that vision.
My excellent DOP, Michel La Veaux, and I were going for a very seventies vibe. So, he was able to get a camera package with great zoom lenses from that era, and he used a lighting kit that would be used in that era as well.
The film is partly my homage to seventies Quebec cinema, and Michel has worked over the years with many of the great Quebecois directors, so he knew exactly what I was going for.
Everything was done “in camera” – with no filters or anything in post. The film has those deep greens and brown hues of nature – a richness and depth – and we actually succeeded in making it look like a 35mm film!
Some people have even told me – seeing the film out of context – that it was shot in the 70s!
I was also able to cast great Quebecois actors through a casting agent, instead of just using friends and non-actors like I’ve done historically. And we were able to afford spectacular locations, like Beatrice’s house in the woods – which was also used in one of the X-Men movies – and the monastery, which is actually a former nunnery that we had to “butch up” with the art design.
Hercules Desjardins also did a great job of the production design with not all that much money. The twin F/X were also challenging for me, and it was a steep learning curve, but it turned out quite well. We tried to use as little CGI as possible and used mostly split screen and body doubles. Many people actually think the twins were played by actual twins, not be the same actor, Felix-Antoine Duval, who is so lovely in the movie.
Your arthouse films are always sexy, but with your projects with CockyBoys and Erika Lust you’re creating high-end porn. Do you have to have a different mindset when approaching an arthouse project compared to a porn project, or is it a similar process just with different results?
I really approach porn and non-porn movies in the same way. I start with a great script, with some narrative complexity, and then approach the shooting as if I’m making a piece of cinema.
Narrative, mise-en-scene, aesthetics, developed characters, and casting people who have chemistry with each other are all important to me whether it’s an indie film or a porn film.
For the Erika Lust and CockyBoys porn movies I’ve made, I’ve largely worked with wonderful professional DOP’s that don’t normally do porn, so they bring their craft to the film and light it and shoot it like the would any other kind of film.
However, The Affairs of Lidia was shot by a great DOP named Isabelle Hamon who is very experienced shooting porn, but she made the film look wonderful as well!
When it comes to the sex, my trick is that I push my indie films as far as I can in a porn direction – occasionally even with short bits of explicit sex, and often with some nudity – and I push my porn films as far as I can in the direction of indie or even experimental or conceptual cinema, with story, humour, plot, and character development.
Saint-Narcisse draws on the iconography of Saint Sebastian and Narcissus – are there any other gay icons that draw your interest from a storytelling perspective?
I wrote a script a while back about Wilhelm Von Gloeden, the pioneering gay photographer and art star who shot Sicilian teenage boys in Sicily back in the late 19th century, but I never managed to get it produced. The pederast angle is a difficult one to get funded, but it’s a brilliant script.
I reference a lot of gay icons in my work, or incorporate parts of their stories into my characters. Right now, I’m writing a script in which the main character is a cross between Quentin Crisp, Roman Navarro, and Taylor Mead.
I kind of already played a version of Warhol in my movie Super 8 1/2, and my character Jurgen Anger in Hustler White was partly inspired by Kenneth Anger. Gudrun, the main character of The Raspberry Reich, was based on the RAF terrorist leader Gudrun Ensllin, and Big Mother in The Misandrists was partly based on Ensllin’s fellow RAF comrade Ulrike Meinhof. To me, they are also gay icons.
You’re known for showcasing or celebrating transgression – that works really well with the twincest element of the Saint-Narcisse story. In that context of transgression, how do you feel about the increasingly visible conflation of gay men = groomers/paedophiles? Transgression seems tricky terrain when advocating for LGBTQ visibility and education is countered with “okay, groomer” and that conflation goes unchallenged. Does that make you wary about tackling transgressive themes in the future?
This conflation of gay men with paedophiles has been going on forever, despite the fact that everyone knows the percentage of paedophiles skews way more toward heterosexual men. That’s why I would still love to make the movie about Von Gloeden.
The historical and classical reality of pedagogical relationships between older men and teenage boys – sometimes including sexual mentoring – should not be swept under the carpet just because some paranoid straight people project their own perverse fantasies onto the lives of gay men.
There is now a new sexual puritanism in the US and Canada that is actually making otherwise salient people resistant even to the idea of intergenerational sex and relationships between consenting adults. It’s quite an extraordinary cultural regression.
I tackled this taboo in my film Gerontophilia, which one mainstream critic called “creepy,” while others praised the film for the delicacy and romanticism that I brought to the subject.
I will continue to be transgressive and push boundaries. I don’t see the point of cinema otherwise.
What do you hope that people feel when watching Saint-Narcisse?
Saint-Narcisse is an homage to 70s Quebecois cinema when films were made for adults, tackling adult subject matter and sexuality with frankness and without shame or guilt. Many of these films were about skeletons in the closet, ghosts from the past, psychosexual and fetishistic situations, incest, or rape.
So much of today’s popular entertainment is geared towards teens and tweens, and it’s remarkably sexless and prudish. It’s partly sexual puritanism – the idea of teenagers as sexual beings is increasingly repressed – and partly pandering to youth audiences.
I love films from the sixties and seventies that had adult subject matter, made for mature audiences who didn’t consider nudity and sexuality as something to snigger about, or make fun of, or even to censor.
The themes of Saint-Narcisse – sexual exploitation in the Catholic Church, incest, Freud’s notion of Family Romance, lesbian relationships, intergenerational relationships – should not be considered shocking or inappropriate. It’s real life.
The film is also a meditation on narcissism, the ideological white noise of the new era, so I hope the film makes audiences think about what that actually means going forward.
Saint-Narcisse is distributed by Peccadillo Pictures
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