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‘Leolo’ (NR)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
May 06, 1993

"Because I dream," says Leo, "I'm not."

What is he not? He is not what everyone believes him to be. Because he dreams, he is not a French-Canadian boy, Leo Lauzon, forever linked by blood and misery to his lunatic family; instead, he is Leolo Lozone, a soulful, romantic lad from the golden bosom of Sicily. He insists on it, writing night and day about himself, a stranger in this dark cave of strangers, refusing even to answer to the name Leo, bellowing back defiantly, "Leolo! My name is Leolo!"

To the audience, he is and he isn't -- both and neither. In reality, he is an intensely miserable member of a grotesquely dysfunctional family of working-class Montrealers. In reality, his grandfather -- whom he detests for polluting the family bloodlines with his twisted genes -- is a pervert who pays young girls to bite off his toenails in the bath.

In reality, his father (Roland Blouin) is an immense, sweaty blimp of a man obsessed with his own (and everyone else's) toilet habits. Because Grandfather (Julien Guiomar) has convinced him that a bowel movement a day keeps the doctor away, Father patrols the family's visits to the john as if he were a policeman, his revolver at the ready for anyone who dares to cheat.

These ventures into surreal scatology are typical of Canadian writer-director Jean-Claude Lauzon. Claiming his own childhood as the source for these stunning visions, Lauzon is at his best working in the area where reality and fantasy blur, where dreams become as real as the dreamer's waking life. In "Leolo," he's used this skill to discuss the relationship between madness and creativity, between the suffering of the daylight world and the comforts of the imagination.

Nearly everyone in Leo's family is mad, except perhaps for his mother (Ginette Reno as a Felliniesque symbol of maternity), and certainly he would be too if he had not fashioned the alter-ego character of Leolo to provide an escape. Even so, insanity threatens to engulf him, and so he writes away in his notebooks and journals, chronicling his life as Leolo, his dreams of his real homeland and the horrors of this misplaced existence, augmenting the truth whenever necessary until we're never quite sure whether we're witnessing truth or fiction.

Lauzon's story takes its life from the commentary Leolo has written, which is read in a throaty basso by Gilbert Sicotte, and the director's surreptitiously subjective camera. Lauzon doesn't cue when he shifts back and forth between fiction and fact; his family portrait is wild and expressionistic and strewn with motifs and buried meaning. For example, does Leolo have his first sexual experience with a hunk of cow's liver, which, later, his body-builder brother Fernand (Yves Montmarquette) eats for dinner? Or are we watching the rococo embellishments of Leo/Leolo's secret dreams?

It's precisely this ability to interweave fact and fancy that makes "Leolo" so personal and expressive. Also, regardless of who and what, exactly, he is, Leolo is an irresistible icon of childhood's tyranny. While his brothers and sisters shuffle in and out of mental hospitals, Leolo retains his grip on reality (of sorts); out of this demented menagerie, he's the normal one. And Lauzon is crafty in the way he soft-pedals the idea that Leolo is saved through his writing.

It's Lauzon's subtlety in this matter that saves this visually sumptuous movie (it was shot by Guy Dufaux) from seeming self-conscious and overly literary. For those who worship art, Leolo's tortured scribblings may look like sufficient reward for his suffering, especially since his discarded pages are collected and archived by a peddler -- known to Leolo as the Word Tamer (Pierre Bourgault) -- who plucks them out of the trash cans beneath the boy's window.

But for Lauzon, suffering is suffering; whether it's translated into art or not, it's still real. The world that Leolo broadcasts from, he says, is "strange, harrowing, stinking, with no friends and no light" -- and so is Lauzon's film. When Leolo pines for his beautiful, distant Bianca (who in reality lives just across the courtyard), the words he uses are nearly as beautiful as those that Dante used when longing for Beatrice. "Leolo" is a disturbing, imaginative, beautifully realized film.

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