Death Of A Ladies’ Man (2020) – Film Review

death of a ladies man film review

Director: Matthew Bisonnette
Cast: Gabriel Byrne, Brian Gleeson, Jessica Paré
Certificate: 15

By Elizabeth Stanforth-Sharpe

When a film begins with the famous mural of Leonard Cohen in Crescent Street, Montreal and the song, ‘Memories’ (from the album Death Of A Ladies Man), playing behind the intro, I know it’s going to draw me in. Add into that mix Gabriel Byrne as the central character, Samuel O’ Shea, and I’m already melting.

The life and music of Cohen has become a recurring motif in the writing and directorship of Matthew Bisonnette’s films, including Looking For Leonard (2002), and Passenger Side (2009). Death Of A Ladies’ Man first premiered at the Calgary Film Festival in 2020 and went into commercial release in Canada in March 2021.

‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’ was the title of a 1977 album by Leonard Cohen, preceding a book of poetry the following year, with the title Death Of A Lady’s Man, the subtle change in perspective coming about after a short documentary didn’t show him in a favourable light. He began to have significant gaps in his career and to re-evaluate his life. So, it doesn’t take much guessing that this film is going to be the story of a man who encounters a crossroads in his life and uses it to make significant changes.

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The scenes are intriguingly named after Cohen’s lyrics, giving the shape of the narrative a cerebral texture – the viewer can either just enjoy the story for what it is or, if there’s a familiarity with the works of Cohen, then there’s a deeper complexity to be found.

The first section is entitled ‘Like A Worm On a Hook’ – a snatch from ‘Bird On A Wire’. Cohen changed lyrics throughout his tours, so there are several variations, but in his last UK tour, the stanza ran, ‘Like a bird on a wire / Like a drunk in some old midnight choir / I have tried in my way to be free / Like a worm on the hook / Like a knight bent down in some old-fashioned book / It was the shape of our love that twisted me’.

It is Autumn.

We first encounter poetry professor Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne), based in Montreal, his second marriage just ending, a drunkard, throwing back tablets, trapped by circumstances and, yes, there’s the inevitable ‘pretty woman… standing in her darkened door’. When he goes to watch his son playing ice-hockey things begin to get weird. The audience stands to sing the National Anthem, but Sam, swigging from his hip flask, sees the team choreographing a version of ‘Bird On A Wire’ into a circular dance around the ice.

The hallucinations follow thick and fast. His dead father Ben (Brian Gleeson) is there, a student in his class stands to recite ‘The Music Crept By Us’ as the rest of the class don paper hats and blow paper horns, a tiger is his waiter, and his drinking partner turns into Frankenstein. Understandably, his friend Brendan (Joel Bisonnette) suggests he takes a break and gets checked out by the doctor, and Sam is diagnosed as having a fast growing, inoperable, grade 4 astrocytoma brain tumour.

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“Follow his dream”

Knowing he has limited time left, Sam spends Thanksgiving with his first wife, Genevieve (Suzanne Clément), her partner (Tyrone Benskin), their children, Josée (Karel Tremblay) and Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon), and Josée’s new boyfriend Chad (Raphael Grosz-Harvey), who has introduced her to drugs. He tells Chad that he always wanted to write a book, but never got around to it. Then Canadian geese encircle the cityscape, and a pink fairy floats by in a bubble and exhorts him to go home and to follow his dream. When a fairy tells you such a thing, then the obvious thing is to obey.

Cue section two, entitled ‘There Is A Crack In Everything – in which a man takes a trip and writes a book’, alluding, of course, to Cohen’s anthem.

It is Winter.

Sam is originally from Ireland, so he packs up and returns to his childhood home in Dublin, where, not surprisingly, Ben greets him and shares a meal with him. From a broken home himself, raised only by his father, Sam reflects how that was the one thing he didn’t want to happen in his own marriage, and they both share regrets that life holds no guarantees. The first living person he encounters is the assistant in the village shop, who just happens to have lived in Canada, but has returned to Ireland to be close to her sick mother. She is reading Beautiful Losers – a novel of which the Boston Globe reviewer wrote, “James Joyce is not dead. He is living in Montreal under the name of Cohen.” Sam tells Charlotte (Jessica Paré) that The Favourite Game is his preferred Cohen novel.

Sam and Charlotte go for a drink, encounter the rival for her love, Kevin (Fred McCloskey), then end up back at Sam’s cottage, with Cohen’s ‘Why don’t you try to do without him?’ as the backdrop to their passion. She stays, a strange band composed of former hallucinations plays in the loft space, but this time he appears not to be aware of them, they are more peaceful and seemingly behind him. He begins to relax, enjoy the scenery, and to write the novel he has always dreamed of writing.

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“Isolated cottage”

As with all romances, there are hiccups in the contentment. Kevin shows that he is not happy with the new arrangement by leaving a severed deer’s head on the front wall of the cottage, Sam confronts Kevin and gives him back the animal, an act that endears Charlotte to him more. She takes him to spend a very quiet Christmas with her mother, Una (Ingrid Craigie), who interrogates him as someone who is one year older than herself and has been divorced twice, suggesting that he would be a better match for her than Charlotte, and then confessing that she had had an older lover who had died. It’s another crossroads moment.

Recognising that he needs to tell Charlotte about his illness, the hallucinations seemingly begin to come thick and fast. Ben tells him that another woman isn’t the answer to dealing with what lies ahead.

Meanwhile, back in Canada, Genevieve is preparing for her new marriage, and Josée has developed a heroine habit after being introduced to the drug by Chad. The family celebrate Christmas, but Josée cannot understand why her father has not returned to join them.

Concerned, Josée travels to Ireland to see if her father is okay. He opens the door, welcomes her in and introduces Charlotte, whom Josée cannot see. Charlotte has been an illusion all along, and his daughter sees him for the unkempt, ill person who has been living in the isolated cottage uncared for, that he really is. Cohen’s lyrics, ‘Now I’ve heard there was a secret chord / That David played and it pleased the Lord / But you don’t really care for music, do you? / It goes like this, the fourth, the fifth / The minor falls, the major lifts / The baffled king composing Hallelujah’ plays as he collapses, confused and upset.

Sam is taken back to Montreal to be cared for by his family. ‘You say I took the name in vain I don’t even know the name But if I did—well, really—what’s it to you? There’s a blaze of light in every word It doesn’t matter which you heard The holy or the broken…’

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“Lovely circularity”

Able to be open about his illness, and knowing he is held and loved in whatever it may bring, the film moves into the third section, entitled, ‘Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys, This One Has Grown Old And Bitter in which a man finally understands.’ The song ‘Let us sing another song, boys’ is on Cohen’s Album, Songs Of Love And Hate but was recorded live at the Isle of Wight Festival in 1970, and has lyrics alluding to relinquishing possession and control, a woman caught up in dependency on drugs, her arrogant lover, but even more poignantly uses some of the same metaphors as were first used in the song ‘Death Of A Ladies’ Man’.

Samuel goes back to Alcoholics Anonymous and realises he’s been so wound up in his own problems that he hadn’t seen Josée’s addiction. He acknowledges the catalogue of mistakes he’s made in his life, the whole group sings and dances to ‘Did I Ever Love You’ from Cohen’s 2014 album, Popular Problems, put together after a tiring tour in 2012 and 2013 had exacerbated his leukaemia causing serious atrophy to his spine and worsening his condition. His voice is growly because he can no longer expand his lungs fully. It’s inclusion here is almost telling us that just as that tour was Cohen’s last valiant attempt at dancing in the sunlight, this is going to be Sam’s, but the choice of scenography is really interesting.

The singing begins with Sam (‘I’), the rest of the group joins in – ‘I’ becomes ‘we’ – and the whole becomes a Jewish circle dance of the type carried out by the men of the synagogue in the days leading up to Sukkot. The ‘I’ dissolving into ‘we’ is a deliberate and specific act of transcendence; the loss of self and an acknowledgement that we are not alone in our battles. The dance becomes a march of unbounded joy, gathering more and more people into its midst, uniting all people, creating a oneness that endures even when the participants part. It’s what the Jewish Midrash explains as, “It’s hard for me to see you part from one another. Hold back another day, and we’ll celebrate together”. It’s what Cohen called ‘The Order Of The Unified Heart’.

There’s a lovely circularity that links this dance with the dance of the ice hockey players in the first section – the first leading to confusion, and the last embracing the outcome of that confusion.

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“Quirky and surreal”

It is finally Spring.

Brendan tells him that his completed book is good, and only we see the Grim Reaper strolling behind them. Sam sees him as he comes alongside and, ready and accepting of what is to come, links arms with both Brendan and Death. At the book’s launch everyone applauds, including his Ben, who at the reception beckons him outside. The ending is a surprise … but then it often is.

‘Heart With No Companion’ (from Various Positions) plays, with the apt lyric, ‘Now I greet you from the other side…’

This is one of those films that could be corny if it the links to Cohen’s work were too stretched or too obvious, but they are delicately done, and it would be as equally enjoyable to those who know nothing of his music or life, as to those who are hard core fans. At its most basic level, it’s a story of accepting what the future holds and dealing with it and discovering those who truly have got our backs are often under our noses, and it is very well done. The scenery of rural Ireland is beautiful, but the shots of Canada’s cityscapes are also stunning. It’s quirky and surreal, but the text is clever and understated, and the cast has been put together with such care and thought.

As Cohen once said: ‘The world is full of conflicts and full of things that cannot be reconciled. But there are moments when we can … reconcile and embrace the whole mess, and that’s what I mean by ‘Hallelujah’.

Blue Finch Film Releasing presents Death of a Ladies’ Man on Digital Download now

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