There has never been a Canadian film quite like it. Un zoo, la nuit is as lethal and as stylish as any high-art thriller from Hollywood or Paris. But produced and shot in Montreal, it is much more than a thriller.
Quebec director JeanClaude Lauzon’s characters inhabit a brutal underworld where sexuality and violence are unleashed with switchblade precision. Yet, as the movie unfolds, the night’s black-leather layers are slowly peeled back to expose a soul of stunning vulnerability and compassion.
Murder: When the story begins, Marcel (Gilles Maheu) is about to be freed on parole after two years in jail. Just before his release an inmate arrives at his cell to deliver what is known in prison jargon as “a singing telegram.” A guard shoves Marcel’s face against the bars while the visitor rapes him—a message from two corrupt policemen to persuade Marcel to hand over the profits from a drug deal. Marcel realizes that they intend to murder him, unless he kills them first.
Meanwhile, he engages in a series of desperate sexual encounters—from a meeting in a men’s room cubicle to the sullen rape of an ex-girlfriend on a warehouse roof—that offer little relief. But Marcel’s priorities suddenly shift when he becomes consumed by a more urgent agenda: reconciling his strained relationship with his ailing father, Albert, played masterfully by Roger Le Bel. The two men start from opposite ends of their culture, the old working class and the young underworld. Albert tells his son, “You kids think you’re changing the world just because you wear dark glasses at night.”
But Marcel, desperate to make up for lost chances to show his love, is willing to meet his father more than halfway. They go fishing and hunting and later make a strange excursion to the zoo. The touching reconciliation between father and son throws Mar-
cel’s other reality—the zoo of Montreal’s underworld—into bizarre perspective. In the end the film deals with two kinds of death: the one that discards human life like a bloody rag in a back alley and the one that dispatches it into the night with a kiss. The graphic, high-gloss brutality becomes a foil for an unusually delicate drama. And Zoo hits home by treating tenderness as explicitly as it portrays sexuality and violence.
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
It received a tumultuous standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival last May when it opened the prestigious Directors’ Fortnight series. And it received a similar response last week at Toronto’s Festival of Festivals. With his first feature film, Un zoo, la nuit, Quebec’s Jean-Claude Lauzon has made
a bold debut. But at the Toronto festival, amid the rising clamor of media attention, the 33year-old writer/director suddenly decided he had had enough and cancelled two days of interviews pre-arranged by the film’s publicist. Complaining that the schedule was too hectic, he said that he was tired of answering questions about his life: although Zoo is a fiction of wild extremes, it is also a mirror of the film-maker’s past in a subculture that trades in drugs, violence and sexual adventure.
Haunted: Growing up poor in Montreal’s East End, he spent his teen years cruising the city’s nightworld. And, like Zoo’s main character, he became haunted by the distance between himself and his father, a poor laborer who died in an unheated slum shortly after Lauzon began writing Zoo’s script in 1982. “I started out to make an urban fashion film,” Lauzon told Maclean’s. “But I ended up making a high-contrast movie about two completely different worlds.” Film-making saved Lauzon from both the poverty of his background and the dangers of the street. At 16, after a chance meeting with the National Film Board’s André Petrowski, he began to channel his restless energy into creative pursuits. He later studied film at the University of Quebec and made two award-winning shorts, Super-maire (1979) and Piwi (1981). Lauzon then sharpened his craft by directing commercials, until he made Zoo last year. Roger Frappier, Zoo’s co-producer, said Lauzon “feels he has to master whatever field he gets into, whether it’s film-making, archery or hunting.” In fact, Lauzon says “film-making is just a hobby compared to hunting.” A licensed pilot, he owns a seaplane that he uses to visit his cabin in northern Quebec. This week Lauzon plans to appear at the Tokyo Film Festival. But he says he still dreams of escaping the clamor of Zoo’s success for the silence of the bush.
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