You’d be forgiven for looking at Stéphane Lafleur’s Tu dors Nicole, reading its synopsis and thinking “Oh great, it’s Frances Ha in Quebec.” The coming of age film is a model that has a broad appeal as of late with films such as Oh Boy and Frances Ha screening last year at the Sydney Film Festival – both of which were shot in black and white, and with the latter included in Official Competition. I have nothing against the genre, and if done well, they’re engaging, charming and very digestible, and take full advantage of a large film-going population of twenty-somethings that identify with their on-screen counterparts.1 The question this film necessarily faces, considering this canon of well-made and well-loved ‘slacker’ films with female leads, is whether or not it simply mines this prototype for all its commercial worth without attempting to say or do anything new. Surprisingly it had something new to say and while subscribing to a lot of the definitive stalwarts of this genre, by actively appropriating these tropes and archetypes, it presents us with something self-aware and subversive, while also satisfying whatever surface level interests we have in watching a Québécois Juno.
This film knowingly plays on the audience’s heavy exposure to this genre and brings that to the forefront most obviously in the appropriation of Americana. By simply looking at the film you could assume that we’re situated in an American context – the houses are suitably identical, complete with pedicured front lawns and swing sets lined up on perpendicular streets. Not only is the setting noticeably Americanised, so are the situations Nicole finds herself in. Her parents have left the home for the summer, allowing her brother’s band, a take on the American garage band, to move in to practice. There are a plethora of nods to America in the film that would grow boring for me to list, but while this can be read as homage to American surburbia and the slacker films it gave birth to 2, the insistence of its presence on film reads to me more as a light-handed satire of the films it borrows from, one that questions the implication that this situation and this story of growing up is universalised through an American gaze.
This theme leaks into the filmmaking subtly in the offbeat cut to black editing that treats particular scenes like vignettes, rather than as urgent stops in the sweep of the protagonist’s journey. The question of Lafleur’s editing is important considering he’s a much more prolific editor than director, and this film is edited in a way that just keeps it from slinking into the tedious. Lafleur’s editing maintains the tempo needed for the story to progress with some momentum and the same comedic pacing but makes a subtle departure from the invisible cuts that tend to define this genre, instead drawing attention to how it’s edited with longer pauses after cut to blacks. The choice to shoot on 35mm black and white film feels less like a quirky revitalisation of early French New Wave, than simply the best palette to express Nicole’s insouciance, while also supplementing the film with a warmth and texture that only film provides. That being said it is also makes full use of lighting, with some great shots of the character buried in black, save for a pillar of street light, and boasts beautiful shots of deep contrast that defend the use of black and white as more than just a fun stylistic conceit. The slow panning shots in the film that play with blocking and perpendicular framing recall Wes Anderson in a small way, but are effective on their own terms in being able to catch the intimacy of an ordinary moment and by allowing it to play out in real time.
The metaphors and pastiche of American coming of age films are obvious, particularly the knowing look into the camera at the end of the film, which is more often than not the sign of a lazy filmmaker who assumes that the audience aren’t engaged enough to see the film’s self-referential nods or that they need some charming gimmick to neatly wrap up the story. I did feel as if the inclusion of the look to the audience in this film was an unnecessary way to alert the audience to the film’s self-awareness, and that the references to American surburbia became heavy-handed toward the end. The final shot of a geyser shooting through the forest of roofs ends up being an absurd conclusion to the film, subverting expectations and as an answer to the blatantly obvious references to volcanoes and geysers throughout the film. While I had read these mentions as a hint to the trajectory of Nicole’s character and an inevitable breakdown or emotional catharsis of sorts, this irreverent final shot subverts those expectations. By following the look out to the audience, it must be read as a definitive critique of the causative and directed narrative arcs of most coming of age films that seem to demand some sort of neat tie up to a character’s development. This ending is closer to Eliot 3 than the slacker films it references, and celebrates the ordinary progression of life and the path to adulthood, rather than the necessity to have dramatic outbursts of self-expression.
The film’s main departure from the genre it borrows from exists in the character of Nicole, where we finally see a female lead that need not be quirky, or charmingly awkward, but simply ordinary and never boring. Played by Julianne Cote with perfect reticence and apathy, Nicole reads like a live-action Daria, a comparison that feels uncomfortably clear in a scene where a baseball comes flying toward Nicole, her best friend Veronique and band member JF with the cry “duck”, only to see Nicole sit unflinching as the others hide, and to continue sitting indifferently when the ball flies through the bleachers and lands on the ground behind her. Where this film is refreshing is the absence of the self-entitled, anxiety-riddled but ultimately lovable heroine of most slacker films, who shirks all responsibility and demands only a day-to-day diet of fun exchanges and self-discovery. Nicole does not fit this mould – she is assured, as we see from a sexual encounter early in the film: “When will I see you again?”, “What for?”, “For fun”, “This was fun” – and is the most responsible figure in the film, mending pant cuffs and mowing the lawn. Her friendship with best friend Veronique has strong echoes of Ghost World, and the story arc with love interest JF teases but is ultimately frank.
What defines this film and Nicole’s growth, is not any particularly major crises, fights or moments, but simply the ordinary exchanges that populate her days, be it with her young admirer Martin or with a dad driving his new-born son around the neighbourhood trying to lull him to sleep. Nothing in the film is tied up neatly, or feels as if it adheres to a check-list for stories about maturing over the summer, but speaks instead to the importance of ordinary moments, of private embarrassments and unspoken frustrations in shaping a person’s life. In this lies the charm of Tu dors Nicole, that on a surface level ticks the boxes of what we want from a coming of age slacker film, but carries subversive undertones that ultimately critiques the genre it looks to and in doing so, adds something new to it.
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