In Le Vendeur, the tragedy is not the death of a salesman but his enduring life – it's the mask of amiability that he can't remove and that has come to define him. At this point in his late middle-age, what lies behind that mask is unknown even to him. Maybe nothing. Maybe, as the master of the soft sell, he has become his job, and the outward show of sunny optimism is no longer a sales technique. Instead, the veneer is all there is to him, a happy-face prison impervious to any deeper, finer emotions.
This Willy Loman lives in northern Quebec, and his name is Marcel. He sells cars, a difficult task in a pulp-and-paper town where the mill could be closing – the workers have been locked out for months – and it's the dead of winter. Truly dead in the opening scene where, amid blowing snow, a highway crew attends to the bloodied corpse of a moose – road kill, struck by a car whose own battered grill is briefly glimpsed. Silently, writer-director Sébastien Pilote starts with a familiar Canadian tableau, a common tragedy. Then he introduces the common man.
In the car lot, Marcel (Gilbert Sicotte) is plying his trade – brushing the snow off a new vehicle, then zipping up his parka and chatting up a browser. A veteran and always the top-earner, he radiates charm, not the snake-oil brand but the real relaxed deal, the kind that only an artist can fake. Furtively, he tapes his conversations with the clients, listening to them later to further refine his style. With his daughter Maryse (Nathalie Cavezzali) and grandson Antoine, who drop into the lot for a visit, Marcel is identically charming. He clearly loves them, yet his manner is the same as with the customers – light, bright, affable.
The rest of the film (another nuanced French-Canadian work) follows him on his daily rounds. A widower, he lives alone but seems content in his solitude. Indeed, patience is his strong suit, whether loosening the reins on a prospective buyer who's having doubts, or simply looking out the window of an empty showroom at the white expanse beyond. "They're calling for minus-30 today," he says, then wanders back to the service bay to treat the mechanics to a round of Cokes. He's a nice fellow making a nice gesture, although, as always, his niceness has a commercial purpose: The mechanics feed him tips on used-car owners who could be in the market for an upgrade.
Like François. His pickup is old and, gently encouraged by Marcel, he eyes a new truck. François is one of the unemployed mill-workers, with a wife and two kids and a credit-rating that barely allows him to do what common sense is screaming at him not to do. Depressed, down at the heels, he obviously can't afford the truck. Marcel knows that, and something else too – that the poor guy is desperate to buy his way out of the blues. The salesman artfully pounces.
Essentially, this is a character study, where the plot is slow-developing (trying our patience too at times) and where the tragic flaw is as subtle as the metaphoric overtones. "I sell cars, that's all," insists Marcel, excusing himself from any broader ethical concerns. But that's not the whole story. He also sells crippling debt and, as that opening scene hints, sometimes even destruction. The car in our modern culture is a complicated, many-faceted symbol.
And Marcel is not a complicated soul. I mustn't give away the climax, but it forces him to look beneath his public mask. Here's when Sicotte shines in the title role, under-acting superbly to reveal a man caught between two contradictory yet crucial needs – to give vent to a deep emotion and to preserve that bright mask. One is essential to his humanity, the other to his job, and perhaps his survival. A thaw ushers in spring's sunny disposition, along with a shipment of brand-new cars. Another winter ends. Or does it?
- Le Vendeur (The Salesman)
- Directed and written by Sébastien Pilote
- Starring Gilbert Sicotte and Nathalie Cavezzali
- Classification: G
- 3 stars