Canadian cinema has a surprising number of director-actor BFFs: Atom Egoyan and Bruce Greenwood (five films), David Cronenberg and Viggo Mortensen (four), Xavier Dolan and Suzanne Clément (three). To that impressive roster audiences should now add Sophie Dupuis and Théodore Pellerin, who collaborate for their third time on the intimate and tender new drama, Solo.
The film stars Pellerin as a Montreal drag performer navigating all manner of professional and personal crises. Aside from providing an open-hearted and beautiful portrait of a relatively unexplored Québécois culture, Solo showcases both its director and lead actor’s talents for shape-shifting: Solo is in dialogue with the family-first themes of Dupuis’s 2019 crime film Chien de garde and her 2020 mining-drama Souterrain as much it is a completely separate cinematic conversation.
And after Solo made its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival last month, where it won the award for Best Canadian Feature Film, the movie is about to embark on that rare thing for a French-language title: it’s getting a healthy theatrical release outside Quebec, starting this Friday in Toronto.
A few days after she triumphed at TIFF, Dupuis spoke with The Globe and Mail about working with one of her closest friends, and shining a warm light on the drag scene.
This is your third time working with Théodore, but also the first time that you wrote a script with him specifically in mind.
It’s not the way I work normally, no, because I like to stay open to surprises. The people I meet in an audition, sometimes a great connection can be made there. But for Solo, it was a no-brainer. I know he can do everything. And he has a kindness about him, this human way of seeing the world as though nobody is perfect. He puts that into every character who he plays.
How has your personal relationship evolved with him at the same time you’re developing a professional one?
I met him when he was just 18 for the audition of Chien de garde – he was a young man whose freedom impressed me. We stayed close, and I saw him travel all around the world with various films. I have a lot of admiration for his heart. Now, we know so well what we’re both doing – there’s always a step in the process and preparation when he gets to know the character better than me, and at that point, I let him go create. He knows that I can give him space, and he takes it. For Solo, he didn’t know a lot about drag, so he went off and did a lot of research.
Montreal’s drag community seems a world away from the settings of your previous films. What inspired you to explore it?
It was the art of the drag scene – my respect and admiration for these very complete artists, who have to use a lot of skills to get on stage. The aesthetics, the makeup, the wigs, playing a character and getting on stage to entertain. That’s very difficult. And the political gesture to do that, to get on the stage? That’s a manifestation of freedom. In the cultural mainstream of Quebec, drag is big. We had a drag queen who just won Big Brother last year. Performers are on talk shows, everywhere. It’s opening doors.
When we last spoke about Chien de garde, there was the challenge of making French-language films discoverable across the rest of Canada. Have things changed much?
It’s difficult for me to see the impact of Quebec cinema in the rest of Canada, and the opposite, too. But I think that we’re making good films, and the language barrier, it’s there, I can understand it. We have a lot of work to do on both sides. Sometimes we don’t think the English-Canada films are talking to us. It’s still hard.
You wrote an essay for the CBC before TIFF about how you discovered your queerness while working on this film. How did you balance that personal development with your professional responsibilities as a filmmaker?
I think that I needed to shoot this film to confirm my queerness. It was mostly a feeling of finding my people and feeling at home for the first time. Sometimes directors are stressed out while preparing films and they’re not sleeping. But I wasn’t sleeping because I was having all these queer epiphanies! Now I understand life! I created a safe space for myself without even knowing it. And now I cannot go back. There’s only before Solo and after Solo for me.
Yet while this film certainly speaks to queer storytelling, its focus on family – the one you’re born into, the one you make on your own – ensures there’s a through-line with your previous work.
I think it is a film for everyone – it’s queer, but this film doesn’t have any orientation or gender identity. I wanted to touch everyone, for every audience. It’s about people connecting, and experiencing challenges.
Will you be working with Théodore on your next film, too?
I’m writing three projects now, but of course I want to work with him again. But these are all baby projects, so we’ll see.
Solo is currently playing in Quebec; it opens Sept. 29 in Toronto before expanding across the country Oct. 6.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Written and directed by Sophie Dupuis
Starring Théodore Pellerin, Félix Maritaud and Anne-Marie Cadieux
Classification N/A; 103 minutes
Opens in Toronto Sept. 29 before expanding to other cities
Just as drag shows are getting unjustly lobbed into the culture war, Sophie Dupuis’s new drama Solo turns the spotlight away from any political red herrings and toward the people whose creativity helps the artistic scene flourish. Following Simon (Théodore Pellerin), a young Montrealer who is the star of his local drag club, the drama balances small moments of quiet intimacy with bright and loud bursts of onstage energy.
At one moment, Dupuis shoots the inside of a rollicking club (sadly, one that does not actually exist in the city and was only invented for the film) with fizz and pop. Simon’s onstage persona winning over the crowd with exceptional ease. The next moment, the director stretches tense moments of domestic drama, as when Simon tries to stage a reunion with his estranged mother, a celebrity opera singer (played by Quebec screen legend Anne-Marie Cadieux) or is dealing with the gaslighting of his charming but unnerving boyfriend (Félix Maritaud).
Neither epic in ambition nor so small that it shrinks from the screen, Solo arrives as an impressive addition to Dupuis’s filmography after the crime drama Chien de garde and the mining-rescue thriller Souterrain. Perhaps even more than that, though, it further proves to English Canada – and the world, hopefully – just what a fiercely talented chameleon Pellerin can be. BARRY HERTZ