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The Favourite Game
Directed and written by Bernar Hebert
Starring J.R. Bourne, Cary Lawrence and Michele-Barbara Pelletier
Classification: 18A
Rating: **1/2

Narcissists, bless them, make it easy for the rest of us. They are never short of a conversational topic, save you the trouble of complimenting them, and do not need to be entertained. The Favourite Game, a movie adaptation of Leonard Cohen's first novel, written in 1963, is about a kind of narcissist. Leo Breavman, aspiring poet, lover, seeker after sensation, a romantic determined to excavate his soul and pursue transcendence through sex and poetry, can also be seen as a self-involved jerk. He can steal a woman from her marriage, then decide that he feels something ''new'' growing inside him, so he really can't have anything to do with her any more.The movie is loosely based on Cohen's apparently autobiographical novel about an aspiring young writer. Cohen's character -- Lawrence Breavman -- seemed less narcissistic, thanks in part to the use of third-person narration, which rendered his particular portrait of the artist as a young man both romantic and ironic, as the hero strikes a series of heroic poses on the way to learning his identity.

Renamed Leo here, presumably both to separate him from Cohen's fiction and to make him sound more like Leonard, the movie is saddled with a first-person voice-over that makes the character a little more self-conscious and harder to take.

Director Bernar Hébert insists that anyone looking for a portrait of Leonard will be disappointed, and the warning is a fair one. Leo is played by J.R. Bourne, an athletically slender, blond actor with puckish features and a guileless quality that seems light-years away from Cohen -- who, even in his youth, seemed to carry the weight of millennia of Jewish learning and history on his shoulders and a world-weary self-deprecating wit to offset his reputation as a compulsive seducer. But the link is unmistakable: Leo writes scraps of poetry that then turn into Leonard Cohen songs on the soundtrack.

Cohen's poems, he has said, are usually about women or God, and sometimes he confuses the two. The Favourite Game downplays the God part (it's not even terribly clear that Leo is Jewish), which leaves mostly the question of Leo and the women. Leo's interest is freedom, with loneliness tempered by periodic bouts of intimacy. As he tells us in voice-over, he is intent on recapturing some lost innocence of his childhood, and somehow women seem to be the conduit.

In the movie, the story is reduced to his relationship with four characters, including his cousin Krantz (Daniel Brochu), who initially shares Leo's bohemian outlook, and then grows tired of his irresponsibility and selfishness. His girlfriends -- all lissome, beautiful and devoted -- include Tamara (Sabine Karsenti), who we first meet when the two are in a room where they have been making love for several days, smoking and living on anchovies. In the midst of their sex-besotted oasis, they look out the window, where they witness an old tramp kill a cat. Leo uses the event to evade Tamara's increasing push for commitment. He announces he's off to New York, and after writing Tamara a poem, leaves her.

In Manhattan, he meets another beauty named Shell (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier) in a restaurant, dining with an older man, and decides she is the one for him. After a brief pursuit, she does become his lover, though there is a constant tension. He insists on idealizing her, while she keeps attempting to bring him back down to earth.

Predictably, she eventually falls short of his quest for a perfect flash of illumination (he compares it to the moment when you see the sink full of cockroaches just after you turn on the light). He becomes bored, and decides, temporarily, that Shell isn't part of his vision quest after all. He moves on, works at a children's camp, publishes his novel and finally sleeps with the girl he loved when he was 10, with whom he played doctor.

The Favourite Game (selected in a Globe and Mail poll in 2000 as one of the top 10 Canadian novels) is famously plotless, which offers some impediments to filmmaking. The plot crisis here -- involving the death of a child and Leo's shock into maturation -- has the odd feeling of another in a line of happenstance incidents, rather than a critical link of cause and effect. But then, the entire movie is like that -- sliding from scenes of country drives, callow bedroom talk and voice-over musings. Though the setting is relatively contemporary (the phones have buttons, not a dial), the style feels more 1960s than of the current century, and it recalls the newfound thrill of bohemia, sexual liberty and chain-smoking cool.

The tone is rather sweetly quaint and, yes, narcissistic. Confident in its own shallow insights, the movie rolls easily forward, making no demands on the viewer to be deeply engaged. Because it loves itself so much, it demands relatively little work from the audience.

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