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- Drunken Birds
- Directed by Ivan Grbovic
- Written by Ivan Grbovic and Sara Mishara
- Starring Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Hélène Florent and Marine Johnson
- Classification N/A; 105 minutes
- Opens Nov. 19 in select cinemas including the TIFF Lightbox in Toronto
A group of Mexican day labourers wander into a drug kingpin’s abandoned mansion, furnished with a merry-go-round, fur coat collection, and roaming tiger. A Formula 1 driver races through the early morning streets of Montreal. Police officers have a standoff with a horse. There are at least a dozen other such moments of surreal, blunt beauty flitting around in Ivan Grbovic’s new fantastical drama Drunken Birds, and by its finale, you get the sense that the go-for-broke Quebecois director is capable of magically conjuring just about any image that might come to his mind, so long as it makes a mark.
A melodrama split, then cross-connecting, into three separate parts, Drunken Birds is a startling thing that just narrowly avoids whiffing the landing. The main thread is a narco thriller tracing the forbidden romance between low-level cartel employee Willy (Roma’s Jorge Antonio Guerrero) and his boss’s wife Marlena (Yoshira Escarrega). The pair flee, but separately. Years later, Willy searches for his long-lost love in Montreal, where he thinks Marlena might have an aunt. This leads him to take a job picking lettuce as a seasonal migrant worker in rural Quebec, which leads the film to its second story focusing on the broken marriage between farm operators Julie (Hélène Florent) and Richard (Claude Legault). And it’s that couple’s teenage daughter, Lea (Marine Johnson), whose flirtations with rebellion provides the narrative’s third plank.
Built with confidence of tone and clarity of vision, Grbovic’s film keeps all three storylines floating with ease, even though it’s clear he has more affinity, and attachment, to Willy’s plight and those of his fellow workers. As the film captures the men mechanically culling, chopping and bagging heads of lettuce day in and day out – their only break being Sunday afternoon trips into town to attend a Spanish-language mass or cram the local internet café – Grbovic delivers a stark but not oppressive portrait of exploitation, camaraderie and survival.
The French-language threads are slightly less successful – it seems that Julie’s personal crises is pulled from a dozen lesser Quebecois dramas, while Lea’s threatens to fall into after-school-special territory – but both the performances and Grbovic’s visual language (he’s fond of having scenes gently, hypnotically bleed into flashbacks) compensate for any narrative shortcomings.
Canada’s official nominee for Best International Film at the 2022 Academy Awards, Drunken Birds might not go the distance – it is, in the end, too unusual and elliptical for the Academy’s generally safe tastes – but it deserves to be seen far and wide outside Quebec, and Mexico’s, borders.
In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a Critic’s Pick designation across all coverage.