Today’s cinema adventure: C.R.A.Z.Y., a 2005 French-Canadian feature by director Jean-Marc Valée about the experiences of a young man wrestling with his sexual identity as he grows up in a large, conservative, male-dominated Montreal family through the sixties and seventies. The screenplay, based on the real experiences of François Boublay (who co-wrote with Valée), took 10 years to complete, but the end result was one of Canada’s most successful films of all time, becoming a box office hit and sweeping the Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, for those who don’t know) with 11 wins out of 13 nominations.
Beginning with his birth on Christmas Day, 1960, the film follows the memories of Zac Beaulieu, whose family consists of three older brothers and (eventually) one younger; their father, Gervais, is a loving but authoritarian working class man with traditional ideas of masculinity, and their mother, Laurianne, a doting but submissive woman with deeply-held Catholic beliefs. Over the course of twenty years, Zac endures the burden of being “different” in the midst of this painfully average, sometimes dysfunctional clan. First he is branded as a “special” child with a gift for healing; then, as he grows older, he must face the ever-growing challenge of coming to terms with his homosexuality, an unthinkable and insurmountable obstacle to harmony with his family- and in particular, to his relationship with his beloved father.
With Zac’s journey to maturity and self-acceptance at its core, C.R.A.Z.Y. takes its audience on an inside tour of middle-class family life in suburbia; not only do we experience the painful struggle of a young gay man trying to first deny, then repress his sexuality in an un-accepting home environment, but also the other all-too-common scenario of drug addiction, as Zac’s older brother battles an escalating habit that is discouraged but enabled by parents without the knowledge or skills to make a difference. Lest it seem, however, that the film presents only a bleak and dour perspective, rest assured that the conflicts and tragedies are woven delicately into a total picture that includes a great deal of quirky humor, as well as portraying the many small joys and transcendent moments that bind a family together- and the private experiences, indelibly printed in memory, that give meaning to an individual life. In the end, though we see Zac and his family embroiled in much turmoil throughout- and mostly with each other- Valée’s film is about love, and its power to redeem and unite, no matter what seemingly irreconcilable differences may exist or how many mistakes have been made between us.
One of the key elements that contributes to the film’s effectiveness (and it is very effective) is the way it captures the third-quarter-20th-Century setting, giving it a particular significance for viewers who, like its lead character, grew up in this era. Part of the way it does this, of course, is through its superb scenic and costume design; there is an authenticity to the choices that has to do with capturing the everyday look of the era, rather than attempting to give us a flashy, definitive period style. It is however, the use of music that conjures the period most noticeably, all the more so because it plays a key role in the plot. Music provides a common bond between father and son, and is an important outlet for both characters. Highly specific choices are featured prominently throughout: for instance, father Gervais has a fondness for singing along with “Emmenez-moi,” by Charles Aznavour, mirrored later by Zac’s impassioned bedroom performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;” and in one of Zac’s flights of imaginative fantasy, he has a vision of his epiphanic levitation in the church to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.” The heavy use of the above artists, along with Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline and others, led to the somewhat staggering fact that more than half the film’s budget went to the acquisition of rights for these songs, and director Valée took a cut in his own salary in order to ensure their inclusion.
The excellence of C.R.A.Z.Y. is the result of top-notch work from everyone involved, and it’s an example of a film that is so dependent on the seamless combination of its elements that it seems unfair to single out individuals for specific praise. Nevertheless, a few standout cast contributions deserve mention. Most obvious, of course, is the performance of Marc-André Grondin as Zac; whether he is willfully disregarding his father’s behavioral strictures, furtively eyeing his cousin’s teen-dream boyfriend, determinedly trudging through a blizzard as penance for his sinful thoughts, or finding an outlet for his stifled passions through his love of music, he lets us inside and allows us to feel like participants in his story. The performers who leave the deepest impression, however, are Michel Côté and Danielle Proulx, completely authentic as his father and mother; they inhabit this pair without judgment or caricature, showing us their many flaws but also the good intentions and endearing qualities that make them lovable. Côté in particular gives an unforgettable portrait of a man who is at once larger than life and touchingly human; volatile, masculine, and charismatic, he commands the screen and makes it very clear why this relationship is so important to Zac.
C.R.A.Z.Y. is not a film that invites in-depth analysis of its underlying themes and archetypal symbols, though these things are present; rather, it is a heartfelt, sometimes painful slice-of-life movie filled with bittersweet nostalgia, ironic hindsight, disarming levity, achingly familiar moments of commonality, flashes of revelatory observation, and a cumulative emotional resonance that subtly builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax. It accomplishes a rare feat for this type of movie, allowing us to be drawn so completely into this family that we truly feel a part of it. This is partly due to the way Valée and Boublay show us the kind of mundane everyday details that become shared touchstones through repetition and associated memories, and their effort to invest each member of the family with as much individual life as possible, even the brothers whose smaller roles in the proceedings leave them more or less in the background; the final effect is that these characters seem like real people in our lives, people that we know intimately, and this serves to deepen our connection to them and give their experiences the weight of shared universal memory. Perhaps most importantly, the movie possesses a sincerity which derives largely from the genuine love it has for all of its characters- even as it reveals their maddening imperfections and their often inadequate skills at coping and communication. This quality alone makes it superb, far-and-away superior to so many similar cinematic memory-plays that start promisingly and then devolve into just another manipulative tear-jerker before the final scenes; but what makes it a truly remarkable film is the primary perspective it takes in its exploration of the trials and tribulations of family life. With Zac as our window into the Beaulieu clan, our sympathies are naturally transferred to him, and we are therefore led to identify with his personal conflict, which is, of course, the central focus of the film. His gradual progression- an anguished process of fear, denial, self-loathing, and self-deception, built around his emerging homosexuality- is thereby made relevant to audiences without firsthand understanding of his experience, a sadly familiar one to millions of gay and lesbian people the world over. It’s a heartbreakingly complete and specific portrayal: Zac’s fear of humiliation and rejection from his family, his desperate bargaining through prayer to have his “curse” removed, his rejection of faith and rebellion against normalcy even as he continues to hide his true nature; all these and more are important facets of the movie’s dominant subject matter, and though it’s all so common as to border on cliché, it’s a social phenomenon that has been long obscured by stigma. By investing us in Zac from the beginning of his life, the movie opens it up to be shared- and experienced, at least through extension- by all. I may be wrong, but I can, unfortunately, think of no American film that even comes close to making the reality of growing up gay so painfully accessible to a wider audience; I invite your corrective examples, because if there are such films, I very much want to see them.