Friday, June 24, 2011

Crazy for trying...

The title of Jean-Marc Vallée's C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) pulls double duty. It's most obviously a reference to the Patsy Cline/Willie Nelson song, which finds multiple iterations on the film's soundtrack. The way it's punctuated, though, indicates that it's an acronym, consisting of the first letters of the names of the five brothers whom the movie is about. They are: Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zach, and Yvan. The film itself is primarily interested in only two of the brothers: Raymond (Pierre-Luc Brillant), a drugged out, burned out fuck-up, and especially Zach (Marc-André Grondin), who struggles from early childhood with his sexuality, and with their father, Gervaise (Michel Côté). The main conflicts in the movie are fueled by Zach's denial of his own homosexuality, and by his father's intransigence when it comes to accepting anything that might be tainted with a gay brush. We experience the movie from Zach's point of view. He narrates the film, and we are privy to his vision of the world and his fantasies about how he would prefer the world to be. On a basic level, the narrative of C.R.A.Z.Y. is kind of banal. It's a queer coming of age story. It covers twenty years of Zach's life, from birth to adulthood. The relationships between Zach and his brothers and between Zach and his father follow well-trodden queer narratives. And that's fine, I guess, because what the movie lacks in narrative originality, it more than makes up for it with both its cinematic elan and its tendency to completely blow up those well worn tropes in unexpected ways.

It's hard to discuss this movie without name-checking other filmmakers. Scorsese is the obvious starting point, given the needle-drop soundtrack and the Goodfellas-style narration. Where Henry Hill opens his story with, "As long as I can remember, I wanted to be a gangster," Zach begins with, "As long as I can remember, I've hated Christmas." Certainly, the emphasis on virtuoso camera movement is Scorsesean to the core. Less obvious, perhaps, is the film's resemblances to Visconti's Rocco and His Brothers, though I suppose you could argue that that influence is transmitted through Scorsese. This is a film that wears its love of cinema on its sleeve, though not without purpose. As a summation of everything director Jean-Marc Vallée knows about movies, it's kind of thrilling to watch. There's almost always something interesting happening on screen, even in the slower parts of the movie. It's often dazzling.

The Beaulieu's are a diverse bunch, and the film codes its five brothers with broad personality traits. Christian is the "brain," Raymond is the druggie, Antoine is the Jock, Zach is the queer, and Yvan is the fat kid. We don't really get to know any of Zach's brothers beyond this coding, but we get to know Zach intimately well. C.R.A.Z.Y. manages to dodge the minefield of cliches in its path by examining more than just Zach's queerness. It also delves into his faith (or lack thereof), his passion for music, and his need to please his father. We get to know Gervaise Beaulieu pretty well, too, though we see him as interpreted through his son. The rampant homophobia Gervaise expresses has a hint of self-loathing in it, and while the movie doesn't explore it, there's something a little queer about his passion for Patsy Cline (not that there's anything wrong with that...). Gervaise's pronouncements on "fairies" seem a tad defensive, too. Zach is a reflection of his father in so far as he has a lot of his identity invested in music. The film is in three acts, and music figures in all three of them as a driver of character. In the first act, we find Zach exploring his father's tastes. In the second, we find Zac developing his own tastes. In the third, when Zach is an adult, he makes his living as a DJ. The second act makes the most creative use of music, as the soundtrack represents a refuge for Zach. He retreats into both the music and persona of David Bowie, while the film represents his dawning atheism with a bravura sequence in which he Zach imagines himself levitating over the inevitable Christmas Eve midnight mass to the blaring of "Sympathy for the Devil." It should be noted that C.R.A.Z.Y. has an amazing soundtrack.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is reticent about its erotic content. It's almost as if it's dodging the issue, but then, the omission of anything like a sex scene tends to amplify the longing and the taboo of Zach's brief encounters with his sexual desires. It amplifies the melodrama, if you will. On the other hand, the movie is totally in love with its leading man. Even when dressed down as a teen, Marc-André Grondin sets the hook in the viewer. As an adult, after the advent of punk and New Wave, the camera goes from merely smitten to full-on adoration.

C.R.A.Z.Y.'s exploration of sexuality is kind of problematic. The film has no doubt that Zach is gay, but it during Zach's long daliance with his high-school girlfriend, the movie raises the unexplored possibility that Zach is bisexual, and he's not the only one. The object of Zach's desire for most of the movie is his cousin's boyfriend, and the movie teases us with hints of his sexuality, too. The totemic presence of Bowie in the movie nods at the queer roots of glam rock, but Bowie himself was bisexual in the 1970s (or claimed to be, anyway). At the very least, the movie is ambiguous about this point. Not that it matters. Gay or bi, Zach is still a queer to the straight characters of the movie and he suffers for it, often at his own hand. C.R.A.Z.Y. is set before the AIDS epidemic, which is probably just as well because that would only heap more self-hatred on poor Zach; he would become even more of a martyr.

Zach is tagged as a spiritual presence in the movie early, when a family friend intuits (falsely, as it so happens) that Zach has a healing power. Toward the end of the movie, Zach goes on a kind of spiritual vision quest to Jerusalem, where he explores his sexuality away from the eyes of his family and where he wanders into the desert after finally and reluctantly embracing his sexual identity. In the desert, he has visions in the best tradition of Old Testament holy men. This echoes the messianic undercurrents from earlier in the film. I like the idea of a gay messiah, but C.R.A.Z.Y. doesn't go quite that far in its implications. Still, the religious elements of the film speak to its longing for forgiveness. All of the major characters--Zach, Gervaise, Raymond, Laurianne (the boys' mother), even Yvan at the end--end up pleading for forgiveness at some point in the movie. Some of them even get it.


Aubyn said...

Did you wish the movie had been more explicit about Zach's sexuality (whether gay or bi)? You start out by saying it's problematic, but finish by saying the ambiguity doesn't matter. At least, that's what I took from the review, but please feel free to clarify.

The idea of a gay messiah is indeed interesting, as is the idea that embracing rather than rejecting sexuality is the path to enlightenment. That's a narrative I don't see too often.

On an unrelated note, are you interested in writing a review for the 50s Monster Movie Blogathon over at Forgotten Classics of Yesteryear? I signed up (I have a weakness for blogathons, it seems) a few days ago and I'd be very interested to see what you would come up with, if you're in the mood.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

In the grand scheme of the plot, it doesn't matter if Zach is gay or bi, but I do wish that it had been more explicit. This is mainly because I see the film charging hard after the conclusion that he's gay all the while ignoring the possibility--a strong possibility given the relationships in the movie--that he's bisexual. I find this problematic because it's arguably a case of erasure, something of which queer cinema has been guilty on more than one occasion. I don't think I articulated this well, though.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Oh, and I might be interested in another blogathon depending on when it occurs (I don't see a date).

Aubyn said...

Thanks for the clarification; I thought that was what you meant but I wanted to be sure. I do get annoyed sometimes at the erasure of bisexuality (Joss Whedon, I'm looking at you) in media.

Oh, sorry, yes, Nate's having his blogathon from July 27th to August 3rd. Let's see if I have a link.

Blogathon here

And Nate does his blogathons on a first come, first served basis, so you sign up for a movie and add your name to the list, if you want to.

List of movies taken

Anyway, if you're interested, great. It does seem like everyone's having blogathons right now. Nate just had his Corman one, now he's doing this one, Garbo Laughs obviously has the Queer Film one, and then there's a Lucille Ball one in August. It's a deluge.

Anonymous said...

Not sure how I feel about demanding a clear-cut label one way or the other... my own take is that Zach is a (primarily) gay male who undergoes that awkward stage which many (myself included) usually experience in high school, where there's a realization that one is attracted to one's own sex but there might be that exception... I'm more comfortable with embracing the inherent ambiguity of "queer" and leaving it at that.

It's not a great film per se but I find its enthusiasm endearing and infectious, and it's a seminal film for me as I saw it right as I was on the verge of coming out. That and Marc-André Grondin and I share the exact same birthday, so others have described him as my cinematic doppelgänger. :D


Caroline said...

I haven't seen this film for a while, but I do remember not liking it much, mainly because the three acts seemed to fit together somewhat haphazardly. To me it felt like the first third of someone's autobiography, without an overreaching story arc. But again, it's been a while since I've seen it.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hi, Caroline,

I think there is an actual through-line that ties the movie together, but it's not what the audience expects so it's kind of invisible. It's the religious element, I think. All three sections have a kind of messianic sub theme, that culminates in that weird vision quest at the end. I dunno. There some things I don't like about the movie, but on the whole I grooved on the camerawork and the performances.

Hi, Jesse

I just read your review over on DVD verdict! Good stuff!