Jeannette (Marie Brassard) has a bad heart. In Ryan McKenna's layered, loopy little feature (in French, with subtitles), this is a medical condition -- she's on a transplant list -- but also a metaphorical problem.

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This article was published 28/1/2016 (2343 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Jeannette (Marie Brassard) has a bad heart. In Ryan McKenna's layered, loopy little feature (in French, with subtitles), this is a medical condition -- she's on a transplant list -- but also a metaphorical problem.

Stuck in a silent, celibate relationship, sinking in a quicksand of chronic low-grade unhappiness, the middle-aged Jeannette seems more likely to die of ennui than actual heart disease.

Starting with this seemingly glum premise, The Heart of Madame Sabali adds in absurdist comedy, surreal drama and inventive, super-stylized visuals. The final effect is weirdly, unexpectedly upbeat.

McKenna, a longtime Winnipegger now based in Montreal, keeps performances and dialogue deliberately low-key. Expect a lot of slow staring and not much talking. As with his 2012 debut feature The First Winter, which was shot locally during -40 C temperatures with snow blowing horizontally across the screen, Sabali draws on a deadpan, pseudo-depressive cinematic tone that people hate or love. You'll either find the film boring or you'll appreciate it as a sly, screwy critique of boredom.

Jeannette seems on the verge of leaving her mopey boyfriend Bruno (Hugo Giroux) and embarking on a relationship with Albert (Francis LaHaye), an appealing but unreadable railway worker and amateur painter of lobsters. Her situation becomes even more complicated when she receives a donor heart from a Mali-born Montrealer, the titular Madame Sabali.

Here the story draws on the notion of "cellular memory" -- the idea feels more symbolic than scientific -- as Jeannette starts to dream strange dreams. She develops an appetite for Malian food, and possibly for life.

She remembers her donor's trauma -- Madame Sabali was murdered -- but she is also drawn to the Malian community. (These scenes include music by Grammy-nominated Malian duo Amadou & Mariam.) She begins a poignant, precarious friendship with her donor's son, Chibale (Youssef Camara), who treats Jeannette as a reincarnation of his beloved mother.

McKenna seems to reference the funny, pancake-flat Nordic cinema of Swedish auteur Roy Andersson and doleful Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki. There's a touch of Guy Maddin, maybe, in the Freudian undertones of mothers and sons, brothers and sisters.

Look for Wes Anderson inflections in the symmetrical, centrally framed interiors and their thrift-store, time-warp fittings. Becca Blackwood, who also co-wrote the script, does a bang-up budget job as art director and costume designer. The faux railway company where Jeannette and Albert work is particularly fetching, as are Jeannette's increasingly fabulous outfits.

McKenna absorbs these influences, but uses them in his own adept and singular way. In its nuanced look at cultural and personal identity, The Heart of Madame Sabali explores the endless enigma of any human heart.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

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Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.