In a fairly crowded field of contenders, “Drunken Birds” just grabbed the nod as Canada’s best international feature submission to the Oscars. The reasons why are almost immediately apparent on seeing Montreal-born Ivan Grbovic’s sophomore effort, co-written with cinematographer Sara Mishara. Though more modest in length and scale (not to mention star wattage), this original story spanning Mexico and Quebec has the kind of thematic ambition and stylistic bravado of something like “Babel.”
Admittedly, that bold, confident surface sits on a framework of rather crude melodrama it can’t entirely disguise. But moment to moment, “Birds” is an impressive leap from the director’s debut, “Romeo Eleven,” a decade ago, signaling another French-Canadian talent perhaps ready to follow Denis Villeneuve and Jean-Marc Vallée onto a bigger career stage. Les Films Opale released the TIFF-premiered film to Canadian cinemas last month.
An initially baffling series of seemingly unrelated scenes — including a white tiger prowling a drug lord’s abandoned estate — gradually settle into the present-tense arrival of Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) on a Quebec farm. He’s a newbie field hand, working alongside a couple dozen other Spanish-speaking seasonal workers. We’ve already seen that he narrowly escaped execution for betraying his erstwhile cartel-boss employer in Mexico. Four years later, he’s still searching for his likewise on-the-lam lover, that boss’s wife (Yoshira Escarrega). He’s landed here in the hopes that she’s living with an aunt in nearby Montreal.
Meanwhile, he’s gotta survive, and lettuce picking is one of the few options available given his immigration status and limited bilingualism. The toil is strenuous, but workers are treated well enough on this farm owned for generations by the family of Richard (Claude Legault), whose spouse, Julie (Helene Florent), is also much involved in its running. Their marriage, however, isn’t running so well — it seems she had an affair with another guest laborer, one who has pointedly not returned this season. That domestic tension is causing their only child, Lea (Marine Johnson), to act out, her teenage petulance eventually leading to some dubious companions and risky behavior.
Both Willy and Lea are haunted by missing loves that are near-abstractions to the viewer, who glimpses them only in a few mostly wordless flashbacks. But that connection draws them together, a kinship that might easily be mistaken for more infidelity. When circumstances (and the language barrier) make Willy appear to be even more of a threat to local womanhood, all hitherto-hidden bias against the racial and cultural other rains down on the innocent émigré’s head.
“Drunken Birds” is so aesthetically striking, and dramatically restrained to a point, that it comes as rather an unpleasant shock when one realizes it’s headed toward something rather crude: A pileup of hidden shame (Lea’s high jinks take a lurid turn), mistaken identity, vigilante violence and other contrivances. The effect is a little like Murnau’s “Sunrise,” in that rapturous poetical lyricism almost redeems a script that finally lands a little too plainly in the realm of melodramatic claptrap. That climax shortchanges characters we were expecting to gain more dimension. Then a fadeout leaves the plot’s principal mystery dangling in a way more exasperating than enigmatic.
Still, Grbovic’s film is so full of grace notes, it’s easy to forgive “Birds” for falling a bit short of its lofty aspirations. Mishara’s widescreen photography is both rich and delicate in palette, with plentiful sunrise/sunset shooting that might seem excessive if it weren’t so gorgeous. She, the director and editor Arthur Tarnowski orchestrate a number of uncommonly elegant visual transitions that lend the somewhat freeform narrative structure (which incorporates flashbacks, dreams, wishful thinking and slow-motion interludes) an impressionistic cohesion. A beautiful original score by Philippe Brault (who like actor Florent also contributed fine work to fellow TIFF premiere “Maria Chapdelaine”) is abetted by some very well-chosen vintage Mexican pop tracks, which lighten the mood from time to time.
Guerrero, who made a memorable impression as the budding fascist who seduces and abandons the maid in “Roma,” provides sufficient charisma to fill out a central figure who’s not much more than a romantic outline, as written. Florent and Legault likewise imbue their roles with as much pained experience as the story allows, while Johnson lends a bratty-but-not-bad credibility to a part that ends up bearing the brunt of the script’s least-credible ideas.