Saint Martyrs of the Damned at TIFF

One thing you can't help but notice in Robin Aubert's thriller Saints-Martyrs-des-Damnes (Saint Martyrs of the Damned), is that Aubert clearly likes David Lynch - the striking and elegant visual style, eerie psychological mood, and subtle quirky humor are all reminiscent of Twin Peaks.

The film tells the story of a journalist in Quebec, Flavien Juste (Francois Chenier), who works for a trashy paper covering inexplicable phenomena (he interviews a little old man about his alien abduction early on in the film, which nicely sets up the cheeky humour that underlies the darker plot elements). The paper's editor is a father figure to Flavien, who, incidentally, knows nothing of his true origins. His editor sends him off to a creepy rural village where he, along with his best friend and photographer Armand (Patrice Robitaille), must uncover the truth behind the disappearances of everyone who passes through the town.

Strange and threatening characters appear upon their arrival, and when Armand disappears, Flavien's furious drive to find him leads him to dangerous secrets about the town's people and his own past. Along the way, he is helped and hindered by a veritable grab bag of peculiar people - the symbolically named (like most of the characters) Mede (homonym of m'aider meaning 'to help me'), a youngish boy whose teddy bear seems the most willing to divulge useful information of the tight lipped people in town, and his reluctant diner-owning mother Sexy Rosy; Tite-Fille (Isabelle Blais, whose character's name means 'little girl' or more slangily 'missy'), an ethereal farm girl who takes care of cows, plays guitar, and lives in a trailer surrounded by a kind of human-magpie detritus; two town punks constantly try to pick fights with him; and a ghost-bride who seems strangely connected to him and the hotel in which Flavien and Armand are staying.

I don't often watch thrillers, so I can't say for certain if genre conventions are observed, inverted or toyed with; I can say that the acting is completely committed, impressively so in a script that demands unusual things from it's actors (I won't ruin the surprises, don't worry). Every role, no matter how large or small, is played with complete conviction which heightens the tension created by the sound and scene.

The cinematography is simply fantastic - every shot is deeply considered and no visual moment is wasted. The use of light, colour, foreground and background is used to emphasize every moment in the script and build or relieve tension as the plot unwinds. I also have to praise the set designers and dressers, their attention to detail is exquisite. (The subtitles, incidentally, are also very good - nothing bugs me more than half-hearted subtitles. These translate idiomatic expressions in a meaningful manner and are easy to read without being distracting).

The film itself, the script and the elements Aubert chooses to emphasize, looks at many dual themes -family/individuality, immortality/death, destiny/freedom, innocence/guilt, and of course, good/evil. The tagline for the film


"Un corps, peut-il vivre sans âme" means "Can a body live without a soul?" and all of the elements of the film hint at this question (thankfully without beating you over the head with it).

My only real problem with the film (and this stems strongly from my disinclination for thrillers) was some of the sound levels. Most of the suspense and fear comes from subtler sound cues and clever editing, but there are a couple screams which, paired with a startling visual made me jump something fierce. The same thing happened with a phone ringing early on. I'm not objecting to jumping, but the volume was a little intense.

Also, there is a slight incongruity in the structure of the plot; there are elements of ghost story, and crime/vengeance with a soupçon of science fiction - for the most part the stylistic unification blends these elements, but there are moments where it seems that the writer wanted to tell two stories and kind of mashed them together. Mostly it works, but there are some places where the seams are still visible.

There's also a, let me call it an effect so as not to spoil anything, towards the end which is left mostly unexplained, and even in retrospect I fail to see the point of it as anything other than proof of the sfx people's talents. If you get a chance to check it out, let me know what you think.

All in all, a beautifully crafted film, where the sheer talent of everyone involved is tangible. And, if you're the sort of person who does that sort of thing, you could certainly fuel a couple hours of conversation on the questions of identity and morality raised by the film. Good stuff to talk about over coffee into the wee hours of the morning.

Saint-Martyrs-des-Damnes screens at TIFF Saturday, Sept. 10 at 9:15pm at Paramount 1, and Monday Sept. 12 at 3:15pm at Paramount 3
For more information on the Toronto International Film Festival, click here

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