FILM 2021

Bruce Labruce’s ‘Saint-Narcisse’ Doubles Down On Taboo Themes

“If you want to live a long life, handsome, never try to know yourself.”

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Young, scruffy, motorcycle-riding Dominic (Félix-Antoine Duval) can’t stop taking photographs of himself, a trait that will eventually prompt another character in the new film Saint-Narcisse to wonder, “Who does that?” These days, just about everyone, but in 1972, Dominic and his Polaroid camera are a peculiarity, akin to a sexual fetish. Coming out of a Quebec bar one night, Dominic keeps pausing to hold the Polaroid camera up to his face. He then hands the instant photos to passing strangers, including a prostitute who warns, “If you want to live a long life, handsome, never try to know yourself.”

Since Saint-Narcisse is a film from Canadian queercore artist and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce (Hustler WhiteL.A. Zombie), it’s a sure bet Dominic will not only come to know himself but also break a few sexual taboos along the way, with a healthy dose of religious blasphemy thrown in for flavor. LaBruce always mixes a heady brew, but this time, working with a gifted lead and superb production values, his outrageous turns of plot land with a surprising emotional resonance.

When his grandmother (Angele Coutu) dies, Dominic discovers a letter from his mother, Beatrice (Tania Kontoyanni), whom he’d always thought to be dead. Following the letter’s postmark, Dominic arrives in the parish town of Saint-Narcisse where he encounters a group of young monks, one of whom, Daniel (also played by Duval), appears to be his exact twin, and a figure Dominic has been dreaming about. Dominic soon meets his mysterious mother, and her beautiful companion Irene (Alexandra Petrachuk), but quickly circles back to the monastery to spy on Daniel.

Things happen, including: Irene comes on to Dominic, who isn’t interested. Dominic shaves his head like Daniel’s and then masturbates to his own Polaroid selfies (as one does). At the monastery, Daniel is put into a wedding dress, tied to a cross, and sexually tortured by his longtime abuser, Father Andrew (an exquisitely overwrought Andreas Apergis).

Yes, Dominic and Daniel do finally meet, face to face too, and sparks fly.

The twins’ moment of sexual combustion is brief but well-staged and calls to mind the fireside wrestling match between Oliver Reed and Alan Bates in Women in Love (1969). Technically, Dominic and Daniel getting naked together is more provocative than two guy pals wrestling — the working title for Saint-Narcisse was Twincest — and yet, there’s a moving sense of healing to the twins’ encounter.

The scene arrives late in the film and only after Duval, making an impressive feature debut, has created two distinct characters. His line readings as Dominic, in fact, are more convincing than those as Daniel, which strengthens the conceit that the roles are being played by two different actors.

As unexpected new liaisons emerge and old ones fall apart, LaBruce strains to create action finale suspense but his timing is off. It’s a minor stumble in a film that’s gripping, subversively sexy, and melodramatically nutty when it needs to be.

In the end, the master of queer punk transgression leaves us wondering: who’s in love with whom exactly? And why do we need to know? LaBruce seems to suggest that not asking these questions might be the wiser and more liberating path.

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