SSIFF 2021 review: The Noise of Engines (Philippe Grégoire)

“The Noise of Engines is a strange beast, its offbeat tone making it a comedy that nevertheless has some very serious things to say about how we view outsiders and about how our view of our own background and history can shift over time.”

After an unfortunate incident during intercourse, the sex life of Alexandre (Robert Naylor) becomes the subject of an internal investigation by the principal (Alexandrine Agostini) of the Canadian Customs college where he works as a weapons instructor. Never mind the legality of all of this, but Alexandre is placed under compulsory leave. He decides to return to his small hometown near Montreal and for a while move in with his mom, the proprietor of the town’s claim to fame, a drag strip. Soon after his arrival Alexandre is approached by two police officers because someone nailed sexually explicit drawings to the door of the local church, and Alexandre’s face is recognizable in all of these. Without saying as much, it’s clear that he is the prime suspect of this apparently heinous crime that has upset the community. A second unexpected meeting is with a female Icelandic drag racer, Aðalbjörg (Tanja Björk), who speaks perfect French and is a lover of Québécois cinema. Alexandre shows her around the town’s sights, however unimpressive they are, and the two strike up a friendship. But the surveillance of the authorities tightens around him, leading to Alexandre having to make life decisions…

The parallels between Alexandre, the protagonist of Canadian director Philippe Grégoire’s first feature The Noise of Engines, and Grégoire’s own background make his film a work of autofiction. Like Alexandre, Grégoire paid his way through film school by working as a part-time customs officer on the border close to his home in Napierville, a small town lodged in between Montreal and the US-Canada border. Even though his parents didn’t own it, the town does have a drag strip. Both Grégoire and his alter ego of sorts didn’t like their job that much. Both share Italian heritage. Whether Grégoire was ever the subject of sexually explicit drawings is unknown. In a way, The Noise of Engines allows Grégoire to deal with a part of his life that he always denied.

This background makes The Noise of Engines a very lived-in film, even if the characters act stilted and withhold their emotions; maybe it’s the Quebec way (Xavier Dolan’s films suggest differently). Tonally the film has a resemblance to this year’s Berlin entry Social Hygiene by Denis Côté, another filmmaker from Quebec, although the first name that will likely come to mind for most audiences is that of Aki Kaurismäki. Characters in the film, Alexandre excluded, are a little off, in the sense that they do not feel entirely like real people. Any sort of authority figure speaks in extremely formal and verbose language, deliberately over-emphasizing their rigidness. The vibe of the film is… foreign, for lack of a better word.

Or maybe it’s the right word, because an idea of foreignness runs through the film, set in a time when Canadian customs officers have just started to be armed as a result of ‘foreign threats’ (i.e. somewhere in the first decade of this century). Alexandre himself is seen as a foreigner in his own hometown and is met with hostility by the local authorities; whereas the true foreigner (Aðalbjörg) turns out to be a friendly, though peculiar (or is that just her foreignness?) soul who is no threat at all. The narrow-mindedness of his environment presses heavily on Alexandre, manifesting itself in nightmares of being closed in and a climax where he is finally free. One can argue whether the character of Aðalbjörg is real or a figment of his imagination, a product of his struggle against his suffocating environment or even a representation of the carefree spirit that Alexandre strives to be.

Structurally The Noise of Engines may be off-putting to some. Initially the film focuses on a different character, but abruptly shifts to Alexandre about ten minutes in, completely dropping its initial protagonist. A similar shift takes place at the end of the film, although it’s more one of location than character, and it provides the film and its central character closure. The Noise of Engines is a strange beast, its offbeat tone making it a comedy that nevertheless has some very serious things to say about how we view outsiders and about how our view of our own background and history can shift over time. It’s a promising debut by Grégoire, and for those attuned to this sort of anti-melodrama The Noise of Engines will provide enough food for thought and pleasure at its peculiarities to maybe gain the director a following.