Cannes 2024 review: Oh, Canada (Paul Schrader)

“If there is anything this formally rigid, low-key drama proves, it is that Schrader still hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to telling small-scale human stories.”

Famed documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife is battling cancer in the winter of his life. When two former students (Michael Imperioli and Victoria Hill) come to interview him for a documentary, Leonard sees this as an opportunity to come clean and destroy the myth that he has become by laying it all bare: his womanizing, the abandonment of his son for 30 years, and fleeing to Canada to avoid mobilization during the Vietnam War. His wife and producer Emma (Uma Thurman) is concerned for him, for his health and for his legacy. She, another former student and Leonard’s last female conquest, would rather have him keep his secrets, especially since some of them are painful for her. As the process slowly wears Leonard out, his memories become increasingly erratic.

Adapted from the novel Foregone, the penultimate work of the late Russell Banks to whom the film is dedicated, Paul Schrader’s Oh, Canada is an old man’s rumination on life choices and on death, which is perhaps what attracted 77-year-old Schrader to the story. If there is anything this formally rigid, low-key drama proves, it is that the man still hasn’t lost his touch when it comes to telling small-scale human stories. Featuring two excellent co-leads in Richard Gere (reuniting with Schrader nearly 45 years after American Gigolo) and Jacob Elordi as the older and younger versions of the film’s protagonist, Oh, Canada captivates through Schrader’s seasoned storytelling. Different frame ratios and a contrast between Leonard’s dark townhouse and the brightness of Elordi’s scenes in the late ’60s cleverly separate the framing device of the interview from Leonard’s recounting of the key moments in his life. Leonard’s home feels like a tomb, a far cry from the expansive widescreen world of his younger self, and Emma seems to sense this: she likens the interview to a post-mortem.

Eschewing the melodramatics of the story, Schrader’s formal treatment of it is what livens up the drama and makes the 90-minute runtime fly by. He plays with structure, using Leonard’s fragmented brain to let the story ebb and flow. Switching between color and black and white, Oh, Canada keeps its audience on its toes despite the narrative being somewhat unremarkable. It is the human element that holds our attention, both in the past and in the present. As it builds towards the moment young Leonard decides to skip across the border into Canada, the key moment in his life that the students came to interview him for, his older self’s blunt honesty elucidates the mindset that brought him to that point. Gere, occasionally stepping into his own memories in more recognizable form (one of Schrader’s less successful decisions), convinces under the makeup as the dying filmmaker who cannot help but direct the story of his life like he directed his documentaries. In particular the silent moments in which Leonard is grappling for a recollection show Gere at his best. Elordi, with charm to spare despite an unflattering moustache, is given less to chew on but knocks a dramatic moment after a devastating phone call out of the park. The rest of the cast turns in fine but unnoteworthy work, with the exception of Thurman as Emma (her smaller second role as the hippie wife of one of Leonard’s friends is mostly remarkable for her hair and makeup).

Oh, Canada‘s finest work comes from behind the camera though. Schrader’s direction in combination with Andrew Wonder’s rich cinematography deepens Leonard’s life and mind. Wonder’s use of shadows, capturing Gere as the lights of the set-within-a-set are on him, makes the character look almost detached from his life already, as if grasping to hold on to it as much as he is grasping onto his memories. These shots are staged as if Gere is in a confessional, a poignant choice especially when Emma takes the place of Imperioli behind the camera. These moments are in stark contrast to the colourful and beautifully composed work in Elordi’s scenes. But the film’s most breathtaking scene comes towards the end, as the frame is somewhere between the widescreen and Academy ratios employed elsewhere, for a conversation between Emma and Leonard’s son Cornel. Meticulously framed and drenched in red, it is one of the year’s most beautiful shots so far. All this beauty would be empty posturing though, if it weren’t in service of the story, but it very much is. Oh, Canada is a return to form after the somewhat middling Master Gardener, and shows Schrader still is a master in examining the human soul. As Jacob Elordi reaches the film’s final and literal junction, the road to it has shown us that Leonard Fife was always a man to run.

(c) Image copyright: Oh Canada LLC – ARP