Credit: Cannes Film Festival/Oh, Canada LLC
by Zach Lewis Featured Festival Coverage Film

Oh, Canada — Paul Schrader [Cannes ’24 Review]

May 24, 2024

The title gives it away. Before one even begins watching Paul Schrader’s latest, the tone is effectively set by a little writerly in-joke of changing the title of Canada’s national anthem from the holy “O” (or the Québécois “Ô”) of direct address, best reserved for the Lord in King James’s English, to the exasperated interjection of “Oh,” followed by a comma lest disappointment be misread as astonishment. Yes, Oh, Canada is about a series of disappointments, though it can also be about making peace with those disappointments — the familial “oh” as in the “oh, you!” uttered when a loved one’s forgivable eccentricities appear. The second part of the title is also a joke because the film was shot in New York.

But Canada still has a role to play here. It’s not, as the oft-repeated assertion in films about places goes, a main character of the story; but it is a myth, both in the sense that it represents something larger than the mundane life of our actual lead, Leonard Fife (Richard Gere), and it represents a pattern of those mundane, terrestrial lies. This Fife, a bed- and cancer-ridden man, was a celebrated documentarian working in Canada, shooting subjects nearly always of particularly left-leaning Canadian interest (seal clubbers, Catholic perverts). His former students Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Renee (Caroline Dhavernas) have decided to shoot a humble two-day interview with the dying American legend who dodged the Vietnam War draft to become Canada’s storyteller and whistleblower. But they, along with Fife’s wife (and former student) Emma (Uma Thurman), are unprepared for Fife’s story and the long line of disappointments that led him to Canada.

The rest of the movie is a steady diet of flashbacks, present-day commentary, asides, narration, unreliable narration, and even a few quips of film-within-film analysis that are so incongruous with the tone of the film that it can only be read as funny. Ostensibly, the flashback sequences (with a wide-screen aspect ratio to signify the past), where a young Leonard (Jacob Elordi) cheats on and leaves his first wife and aspires to be a great novelist, are peppered with another layer of straightforward signifiers (black-and-white sequences) that might place us further into the past where Fife’s memory may be slipping or unreliable. So says Emma, noting the bevy of medications he’s on daily. Schrader gives this assertion a bit of evidence by letting Fife’s perverse thoughts about the film’s PA, followed by extended reflections about being a perverted old man, run their course. But this may be a rare case where unreliable narration is much too simple a reading, as, if his story is played straight, then it’s unclear what elements are upsetting to Emma. Has she learned of the marriages and kids left behind for the first time? Did he never tell her that he may not have needed to dodge the draft or that he used an exorbitant sum of money, intended to buy a house in Vermont to settle down for the privileged American family life, to start a new life in mythic Canada? “If your past is a lie to those close to you, you didn’t exist,” declares the moribund Fife, no longer interested in the mythic Fife and willing to accept these disappointments.

While Schrader tinkers well with his inverted Liberty Valance story, the lengths he goes to formally display this complicated narration border on the absurd. Gone are the studied, Bressonian shots of the men-of-letters from First Reformed through Master Gardener — in fact, there’s even a joke thrown in about Fife’s not-writing, the real hallmark of a self-declared writer. Instead, the subjects of the shots of Oh, Canada matter less than the raw information delivered by aspect ratio, color grading, and narration that are carefully arranged such that the viewer can figure out the visual code to keep up with this stop-start story. This isn’t necessarily novel (and is perhaps a half-step down in intensity from the extreme compositional shifts in 2022’s Blonde), but the film doesn’t pretend like this is anything other than a helping hand. Meanwhile, Schrader throws a few more storytelling curveballs: an additional narration by Fife’s 30-year-old son in the ‘90s and a legerdemain of replacing Elordi with Gere in the flashbacks. The best of Schrader’s films and scripts often builds toward scenes of such holy violence and beauty with simple composition; here, in a furious rush to tell the story in every way, no image is sacred.

The vulgar portrait of Paul Schrader is as a doctor transfusing the existentialist fluids of postwar France into a lifeless Hollywood in order to leave his mark on what would be called New Hollywood. He’s certainly not shy in his own self-mythologizing as he sings praises of that existential exemplar Robert Bresson, prompting his commentators to search for and name any comparison they can, this piece being no exception. This portrait is somewhat fair as his works can be seen as constantly refiguring the central action of Albert Camus’s The Stranger, where a shooting happens first and meaning can only be applied later. From Travis Bickle to Yukio Mishima, Schrader’s pantheon of protagonists aspire to the masculine hubris of legacy-making, of trying to create meaning from the ashes of the disillusionment of the postwar world, no matter what they have to do to secure it. In this way, the Fife of Oh, Canada is not the opposite of a Bickle, for he, too, is obsessed with legacy; only that the wiser Fife knows the meaning of this legacy is out of his control.

The title is also the last thing one deals with in the movie, as a fumbling, corny, folkish rendition of Canada’s national anthem plays over the final sequences. Just like Fife, perhaps it’s best to accept some of the eccentricities expected in a Schrader film, though it’s tough if they long linger as disappointments. Oh, you.

Published as part of Cannes Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.