If Xavier Dolan's Mommy got all the headlines at last May's Cannes film festival, the quieter, more nuanced international discovery was the wonderfully droll third film from another Quebec filmmaker, Stéphane Lafleur.
Tu dors Nicole (You Are Sleeping, Nicole) is a film about a 22-year-old woman (Julianne Côté) over the course of a long, hot, suburban summer. Mom and Dad are away on vacation and she's sort of minding the house and pool, the fish tank and the lawn, while working a dead-end job at the local thrift shop and pilfering clothes for herself and her long-time friend Veronique (Catherine St-Laurent).
In many ways, Tu dors Nicole can be seen as the anti-Mommy. There are no dramatic fireworks onscreen, though a great deal is suggested.
Lafleur is a well-known editor in Quebec films (including on the Oscar-nominated Monsieur Lazhar) as well as a director of two previous features (Continental, a Film Without Guns and Familiar Grounds). And his command of this film's humorous-anxious tone, reminiscent of Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki, is beautifully consistent.
As the title suggests, there's something somnambulant about Nicole, who is tomboyish, sharp-tongued and down to earth, though the film around her is filled with velvety black-and-white scenes (courtesy of cinematographer Sara Mishara) and touches of effortlessly integrated magic realism.
Most odd and amusing is the presence of Martin (Godefroy Reding), a skinny blond 10-year-old with the voice of a seductive grown man who periodically encounters Nicole, declares his undying love for her, assuring her that he's happy to wait 10 years until she's ready for him. The suggestion of a fairy tale (Sleeping Beauty or Snow White) is entirely intentional.
That's not to say Nicole is exactly waiting to be kissed. We first meet her when she's waking up next to a young man in bed, and as she attempts to slip out of the house, he wakes and asks if he can see her again. "What for?" she asks. "For the fun of it," he suggests. "This was fun," answers Nicole, as if that item has already been checked off the list.
In her lazy, casual conversations with Veronique, we learn that her previous boyfriend, Tommy, is about to get married, and Nicole, for all her apparent indifference, is troubled by anxious insomnia. The lock on her bicycle gets repeatedly jammed, an obvious correlative of her sense of being stuck. When she gets a credit card in the mail, she has an impulsive dream of freedom: a trip to Iceland, which not only sounds cooler than her sultry suburban home, but also has geysers, symbols of her pent-up state.
What promises to be an effortless, boring summer gets thrown into disarray when Nicole's older brother, a temperamental rock musician named Remi (Marc-André Grondin) shows up with two new band members, JF (Francis La Haye) and Pat (Simon Larouche), to use the parental home as a recording studio. The house is suddenly full of life, and possible romantic intrigue, but whatever sleep Nicole may have been able to grab before is now even more jeopardized by the painstaking process of recording loud tracks. (Lafleur, himself a musician, knows the tedium of listening to someone set up drum microphones.)
In contrast to the raucous rock-fusion provided by the band, Tu dors Nicole has a distinctively light score by Montreal musician Rémy Nadeau-Aubin and the group Organ Mood, a kind of candied electronic tinkling suggesting vibes and harps, adding to the sense of unreality to Nicole's world. The night scenes are particularly resonant, mixing humour, suspense and textured visuals. This is the kind of film dream from which you feel reluctant to wake.