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MOVIES | FILM CLIPS / AN APPRECIATION

A Posthumous Embrace for a Passionate Director

January 11, 1998|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

It happened late one night several weeks ago. Leaving Hollywood's Raleigh Studios after a screening, alone and nearly the last off the lot, I turned left onto Bronson as usual. Suddenly, all in a rush, I found myself overwhelmed and near tears. And I knew, even before the feeling became a thought, that I would be writing about Jean-Claude Lauzon.

Never mind that it had been months since French Canadian director Lauzon, 43, and his actress girlfriend, Marie-Soleil Tougas, had died in the crash of a Cessna 180 he was piloting in a remote and frozen area some 2,400 miles north of Montreal. Never mind that few people in this country had heard of him, with only Variety and the Hollywood Reporter taking notice of his death. That corner outside the studio gate was the last place I had seen Lauzon alive, and, against all reason, I could not shake the feeling that he had reached out to me from that spot, had forcefully insisted on not being forgotten.

If anyone had the strength of personality and will needed to deliver a message from the next life to a person who barely knew him, it would be Lauzon. As intense as he was sensitive, he was a dazzlingly talented filmmaker who found creativity agonizing. "I cannot make a movie," he once said, "if I don't suffer for it."

Lauzon also had the unnerving directness that can accompany people who have come up from poverty. "I'm so used to being involved with very, very rough people that even when I'm not so angry, people think I'm going to stab them with a knife," he admitted when I interviewed him in 1992. "It's a habit I took when I was young."

Lauzon directed only two films, but they were among the most honored and successful in his country's history, so much so that Serge Losique, director of the Montreal World Film Festival, didn't hesitate to call him "a genius . . . the most authentic filmmaker that Canada produced."

His first film, 1987's "Un Zoo, La Nuit" (Night Zoo), was a modern film noir, simultaneously brutal and tender, that went on to win an unprecedented 13 Genies, Canada's Oscars, and was the top box-office performer in that country as well.

Reluctant to make features because of the psychological pain involved, Lauzon waited five years before turning out "Leolo," which debuted in competition at Cannes and must be considered, despite its uncompromisingly poetic style and scenes too scabrous for a family newspaper, as great a film on childhood as has ever been made.

Profound, disturbing, exhilarating, "Leolo" was a touchstone for me. I saw it under dreadful circumstances, exhausted and irritable (so what else is new) near the end of 1992's Cannes festival. But within minutes I was astonished and involved, and by the time the screening ended I felt, as I still do, that I'd seen a unique and marvelous piece of work.

A memoir of childhood, but not any childhood--a brutal, destructive childhood of the kind that usually leaves survivors without the ability or the desire to remember. Yet Lauzon managed to suffuse his story of the squalid desperation of a boy growing up in his old Montreal neighborhood with the all-accepting warmth and humor of remembered experience. It was a cry from the heart of a brutalized poet, of a boy who escaped by merest chance, and you couldn't watch it without knowing that even the worst episodes--especially the worst episodes--had happened to Lauzon.

A major prize at Cannes seemed inevitable for a film this exceptional, but it didn't happen. Rumors (which the director later confirmed) claimed that Lauzon had destroyed his chances with a provocative sexual remark to an American actress who was on the jury. "When I said it, my producer was next to me and he turned gray," Lauzon related, but he himself was indifferent. Not a model citizen, simply a survivor of a childhood that should have left him for dead, emotionally if not literally, Lauzon did what he did without concern for consequences.

A director who had both a saint's sensitivity and an outlaw's behavior patterns, Lauzon knew he discomfited people who "like you to be either a clean, white hero or a very hard, dark rebel." Yet this fierce dichotomy is what made his films moving and exceptional.

Lauzon not surprisingly took pride in making films so wrenching "when you come out of the theater, you don't want to talk to anybody, you're on your knees for the next 20 minutes." But what work like this took out of himself and other people was always a concern.

"After my movies," he said impishly, "people are not coming out and eating from the buffet. I want them to eat from the buffet. I'm always wanting to write nice stuff, so beautiful women will approach me afterwards. I prefer to write easier stuff, I don't want to go through this crap anymore, but these images obsess me. I didn't want to make a movie about kids, I didn't want to be talking about poor people. But when I was sitting down to write, there is something, images recurring, a wave coming back."

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