Los Angeles Film Festival 2011
By Don Simpson | July 19, 2011
Writer: Stéphane Lafleur
Starring: Francis La Haye, Michel Daigle, Suzanne Lemoine, Fanny Mallette, Sylvain Marcel
Familiar Ground takes the LAFF 2011 cinema-goers who have seen The Salesman to very familiar territory — the wintry snow-blanketed environs of Quebec — but Familiar Ground abides by a far more quirkier and absurd approach to cinema. Additionally, The Salesman and Familiar Ground both feature a lead character named Maryse and a car crash plays prominently in both stories.
Benoit (Francis La Haye) is frozen in a perpetual state of adolescence residing with his father (Michel Daigle) — his mother died five years ago — in his suburban childhood home. One possibility of snapping Benoit out of his stagnant situation: Nathalie (Suzanne Lemoine), a single mother with whom Benoit is smitten (though his “I Like Girls Who Like Girls” t-shirt sends a different message) and hopes to cohabitate. The main hurdle for this endeavor is Nathalie’s son, who strongly disapproves of Benoit’s presence.
A dinner accented with wayward shards of glass ends in a heated argument with Nathalie. Benoit then takes out his aggression on an unsuspecting snowman and winds up with frostbite. Chapped hands soon become the least of Benoit’s concerns, as a mysterious car salesman (Denis Houle) from the not-so-distant future (September, to be precise) delivers a chilling prophesy of Benoit’s next few months: a blizzard, the death of a relative and a pleasant summer.
All the while, Benoit’s sister, Maryse (Fanny Mallette), and her husband, Alain (Sylvain Marcel), are desperate to sell a backhoe. Winter is not the season for backhoes, so it sits unused in their suburban front yard. Already on edge as the result of a co-worker’s accident at the local paper factory (prompting Maryse’s strange fascination with the preservation of dismembered appendages), Maryse is frustrated by the constant sight of the machine and irrationally decides to rent a car to pick-up a trailer from her family’s cabin in order to haul the backhoe away.
The news received by Benoit from the future leaves him concerned about Maryse taking the trip to the cabin on her own. Maryse and Benoit have historically not gotten along with each other — they have never even had coffee together — so the sibling road trip will certainly test their familiar bonds and is destined to change the trajectory of their lives.
Once at the cabin, Benoit is incapable of getting the heater to function or find suitable firewood. Benoit’s foibles with his father’s snowmobile provide us with another glimpse of Benoit’s emasculating inadequacies. The siblings venture to a party next door; it is someone’s birthday and fireworks are anticipated, yet Benoit dislikes fireworks almost as much as he hates watching his married sister flirt with guys who use shovels to open their beer bottles.
Writer-director Stéphane Lafleur’s Familiar Ground is a stylistic mash-up of science fiction, absurdly off-kilter humor and the mundanity of everyday reality. The complexity of the tone is exaggerated even further by the eerie electronic score (by Sagor & Swing and We Are Wolves) and it is Lafleur’s knack for odd comedic timing that truly drives the borderline surreal narrative structure of Familiar Ground.
Lafleur’s comedic ingenuity is sublimely highlighted in the opening and closing of Familiar Ground. By listing the character name “L’Homme du futur” (Man from the future) in the film’s opening credits, Lafleur thus spurs our anticipation of the revealing of this ambiguously named character. The closing image of a towering blue blow-up stick figure blowing in the wind while synchronized with an inspired musical choice (“The Bells of the Night” by The Red Army Choirs) spreads a finishing coat of quirkiness on Familiar Ground.