In Greek mythology, Narcissus was renowned for his heart-stopping beauty. Unfortunately for him, it was his inability to peel himself away from his ravishing reflection that ultimately led to his death. This stark warning about the perils of poring over every inch of our faces wouldn’t seem entirely out of place in a selfie-conscious, filter-ready society.
So, it’s interesting that Canadian queer cinema icon Bruce La Bruce should choose to set his latest film, Saint Narcisse, in Montreal of the early 1970s – a time where your Polaroids couldn’t be photoshopped nor acquire likes. Throwing in plenty of religious iconography, nudity, incest, sexual abuse and even witchcraft, La Bruce is determined not to let his viewers settle in and enjoy his work.
The plot wanders off on many different tangents throughout, but the main crux of the story lies with Daniel (Felix Antoine Duval). He lives with and cares for his ailing grandmother, who has neglected to tell him that his mother is still alive, contrary to her ornate gravestone. He travels to a remote village, where his mother, Beatrice (Tanya Kontoyanni) is living on the edge of a forest, cast out as a witch. Daniel is constantly haunted by visions of a hooded man who looks like him – is he truly so obsessed with himself or is there more to his mother’s story?
The film has a distinctly ‘B movie’ feel to it. The scenes transitions are cheesy and the music sounds like it’s been ripped from an episode of Columbo. There’s a lot of voiceovers to recap plot points whilst Daniel takes to the open road on his bike. There is some interesting imagery offered up at times, such as Daniel looking in the water as Narcissus did. It feels like this should have worked well – as it has done in a film like The Love Witch – if the acting was up to scratch and the plot wasn’t so all over the place. Truly, it feels like there are at least three separate ideas here, merged together for the sake of making one film.
* spoilers ahead * Daniel presses his mother to reveal the story of his birth, where it turns out he was taken from her because she was outed as a lesbian. His mother is now in a relationship with the daughter of the woman she was originally in love with. It gets even messier, if that’s possible, when Daniel discovers he has a twin brother, Dominic (also played by Duval). Dominic has been living as a monk and is being abused by a priest who believes he is a reincarnation of Saint Sebastian (the patron saint of plague, if you like to know that sort of thing). It’s so utterly all over the place that you’ll either double down on your attention or just stop caring altogether.
The ropey plot is made worse by the acting. Duval, in the two lead roles, seems only to have been cast owing to his willingness to shed his clothes every 15 minutes. When he attempts to emote, it sounds like he is reading cue cards that he can’t quite see. Andreas Apergis, as the sadistic and abusive Father Michael, is nothing more than a slobbering pantomime villain. Alexandra Petrachuk, as Beatrice’s lover Irene, veers from being a cliched gun-toting man hater to doe eyed with love for Daniel. No one seems to know what they’re supposed to be feeling when and how to convey that to camera.
Director Bruce La Bruce is no stranger to playing provocateur. His previous feature films include the likes of Gerontophilia (about a young man pursuing his sexual urges towards the elderly whilst working in a care home) and L.A. Zombie (featuring an alien zombie with tusks and weird genitals). It’s just that here, nothing feels particularly provocative. Debasing religious imagery has been done a million times. People get naked in movies. The idea that we’re all obsessed with how we look isn’t new. By throwing in the incestuous relationship between the twin brothers, it just feels a bit desperate, rather than shocking and a waste of a queer love story.
* more spoilers ahead * The film ends with the two brothers in a sexual relationship with each other and with Irene. They all decide to live together – with their mother making up the foursome – in the forest-side cabin. If there was, at any point, a morality tale in here about the dangers of ‘loving thyself’ too much, it’s entirely lost in the hyperbole of it all.
What could have been an interesting story about the dangers of spending too much time absorbed with your own reflection is reduced to a chaotic mess. It also feels like a wasted opportunity to present a credible, authentic queer love story. Saint Narcisse long overstays its welcome and doesn’t deliver the shock or deep messaging that it thinks it does.