192. LEOLO (1992)

“Parce que moi je rêve, je ne le suis pas.” (“Because I dream, I am not.”)–Léolo

DIRECTED BY: Jean-Claude Lauzon

FEATURING: Maxime Collin, Yves Montmarquette, Pierre Bourgault, Ginette Reno, Giuditta Del Vecchio, Julien Guiomar

PLOT: Young Léo Lauzon lives in Montreal with his dysfunctional family; he has an active imagination which he uses to escape from his squalid surroundings. He insists that his name is actually Léolo and that he is Italian, inventing a story that his mother was impregnated by a tomato contaminated with semen. He lusts after a neighbor girl (as does his grandfather) and tags along on salvage operations with his bodybuilding older brother in-between trips to the mental hospital to visit other family members; the entire time a mysterious old man hangs around the edges of the story.

Still from Leolo (1992)
BACKGROUND:

  • This was writer/director Jean-Claude Lauzon’s second feature film. He died in a plane crash in 1995 while working on his third.
  • Lauzon said the film was semi-autobiographical. Leo’s last name is also Lauzon, which he Italianizes to “Lozone” when he decides he is really Léolo.
  • The “Word Tamer” (or possibly “worm tamer”—“dompteur de vers” in the French may be a pun meaning both “worm” and “verse”) is played by Pierre Bourgault, a Quebecois separatist and professor. Lauzon was once a student of Bourgault’s.
  • Named one of “Time” magazines “All-TIME 100 Movies.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The “contaminated” tomato, the film’s most deranged comic invention.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Immaculate conception via imported produce, underwater hallucinations, and bizarre sexual practices reign in the world of Léolo’s imagination. He uses these inventions to escape from an almost equally strange, but far less pleasant, reality.


U.S. release trailer for Léolo

COMMENTS: “Because I dream, I am not,” Léolo‘s young protagonist tells his diary, over and over. He is not what? He is not Léo Lauzon, a poor French Canadian boy. He is not related to the scat-obsessed madmen he bunks with. He is not, himself, mad.

Léolo’s problems originate with his family; he theorizes that his perverted grandfather passed down “one cell too many” to his progeny. Léolo dodges that DNA, at least in his imagination, through his accidental artificial insemination from a tomato. His mother teaches toddler Léo how to defecate via explicit demonstrations, and occasionally keeps a turkey in the bathtub, but she is the most stable one in the family (she “had the force of a large ship that sailed on a diseased ocean,” Léolo writes). The boy loves and respects his mother, but not his corpulent father, a dim-bulb tyrant of the toilet who force-feeds his children laxatives and enforces enemas to ensure the daily bowel movements he is convinced lead to health and well-being. Grandpa is a pervert, and, though “not a mean man,” he tries to drown the boy in a fury. He has a nearsighted older sister Nanette, about whom we do not learn much except that, like the rest of the family, she is sporadically institutionalized (the Lauzons have a suite reserved at the local asylum). He loves his younger sister Rita, with whom he shares a passion for bug collecting, but she, like the rest, ends badly. Léolo spends most of his time with his brother Fernand, a grammar school dropout who bulks up to Schwarzeneggerian proportions after being bullied by a local tough. Fernand’s failure to revenge himself on his tormentor even after he’s added an intimidating shell of muscle speaks to the Lauzons’ destiny as an impotent clan.

There is one more character of significance outside of Léolo’s family, an enigmatic figure known as the “Word Tamer.” He is, on the surface, some sort of vagabond who wanders around Montreal fishing for casually discarded literary relics among the garbage. Some of his prize catches include Léolo’s writings, poetic reflections on his failed childhood and his romantic dreams of becoming a great Italian lover. Perhaps the entire story is told from the perspective of the Word Tamer, reading through the boy’s writings years after the fact. A narrator speaks as we wacth the Word Tamer read Léolo’s diary, although to add an additional layer of ambiguity the voiceover is not performed by Pierre Bourgault. Léolo also knows the Tamer, at least in a dream. Together they throw old letters and photographs on a pyre to purify them, and the boy believes the old man is the reincarnation of Don Quixote. Throughout the story the Tamer checks up on Léolo, and even surreptitiously provides the Lauzon household with its only book, a work which inspires the boy to write down his own fantasies. The film’s final moments aren’t spent with Léolo, but with the Tamer, who fondly takes the boy’s writings down into his basement filled with books and classical statuary and files them away in art’s sepulcher.

This is the only immortality Léolo will find; the defiance of dreams. Like his brother’s inability to beat his childhood bully, despite hours of pushups and pullups and pumping barbells made from old paint cans filled with gravel, Léolo ultimately fails to transcend his origins. He fails to become a man, because he is afraid to become the lover he imagines himself to be. He escapes into his dreams but he is also trapped by them, terrified to leave their warmth and comfort for the real world. Throughout Léolo, perverted sexuality symbolizes the boy’s failure to come to grips with reality. From his imaginary conception onward, Léolo has no real knowledge or understanding of normal human sexuality or procreation. He lusts after the girl next door, but is afraid to approach her; instead, he caresses his sister and snuggles next to his beefy brother at night. He learns about female bodies only from girlie mags, and utilizes butcher shop scraps to simulate real women. He observes his grandfather’s perverted liaisons with the object of his devotions, and his frustrated libido drives him into a misdirected murderous rage. One of the final scenes (set with black humor, to the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) is a heartbreaking vision of adolescent cruelty and erotic malfeasance. His lone act with a real woman is bought and paid for. “I discovered sex between ignorance and horror,” Léolo confesses. He is alienated from the world of love and sex, and therefore, of manhood.

Léolo is a weird movie, but it is also an exceptionally sad one. In fact, it could be one of the most despairing films ever made. What is a dream and what is reality is never one hundred percent clear in Léolo, but whenever you see something crushingly sad, you can bet that Léolo didn’t intentionally imagine it that way. The hero’s only escape from his nightmarish childhood is through art and imagination, but in the end, these escape hatches actually trap him, and he ends up in the same place as the family he sought to escape. There is a symbiosis between dreams and reality; they need to feed off each other. Because Léolo cannot bear to face reality, his dreams desert him.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“If you are one of those lonely film lovers who used to attend foreign films, who used to seek out the off-beat and the challenging, and who has given up on movies because they all seem the same, crawl out of your bunker and go to see this one… It is a work of genius – and the best kind of genius, too, which is deranged genius. “–Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times (contemporaneous)

“These ventures into surreal scatology are typical of Canadian writer-director Jean-Claude Lauzon. Claiming his own childhood as the source for these stunning visions, Lauzon is at his best working in the area where reality and fantasy blur, where dreams become as real as the dreamer’s waking life.”–Hal Hinson, Washington Post (contemporaneous)

“…a bold fusion of the mystical and the macabre… hallucinatory passages conjure a very real sense of childhood isolation.”–Time Out London

IMDB LINK: Léolo (1992)

OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:

“It Takes Monsters to Do Things Like That” – Currently available on Google Books, Jim Leach’s informative chapter on Lauzon for the book “Great Canadian Filmmakers” is largely an analysis of Léolo

“Queering the Heterosexual Male in Canadian Cinema: An Analysis of Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo” – Scholarly article arguing that “it is the rejection of hetero-masculine influence which permits the protagonist, Leo Lozeau/Léolo, to transgress hetero-normative societal pressures and embrace his queerly positioned identity”; I’m not buying it

“Queering the Québécois and Canadian Child in Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Léolo – Not a joke; this ran in the same issue of “Synoptique” as the article above, and its central claim is that “Léolo’s queer identity rejects the [1992 Canadian] child pornography law’s nationalistic discourse of childhood innocence and its erasure of child sexuality”

DVD INFO: The bare-bones DVD release (buy) contains no special features beyond the film’s trailer. Léolo is not currently available on Blu-ray or video on demand.

(This movie was nominated for review by Eric Gabbard , who avers that “like tomatoes… the film is not for all tastes.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

One thought on “192. LEOLO (1992)”

  1. My understanding of “Leolo” radically differs from yours, I think mainly because I subscribe to Freud’s theory of the polymormously perverse, or in other words, that the human libido has no natural (central) object as maintained in bourgeois views. What’s sad for me in the film is the white trash milieu that Leolo grows up in, how his family treat him, and that he ends up in the asylum like many others in his family in the end, but I’d never associate the latter with his “perversions”.

    I haven’t read the two “Synoptique” articles you’ve linked above (although it remains a mystery to me how “The Tin Drum” (1979) can be banned as CP while “Leolo” and even Bertolucci’s “1900” ain’t, and I’m not talking of the scenes involving Sutherland), but in Adorno and Marcuse’s thinking informed by Freud (and laid down from the 1940s up to the 1960s, long before “queer” became a scholarly term), which I also subscribe to, such “perversions” would, in the form of what Adorno terms the individual’s “libidinous resistance” to the repressive, oppressive established order, have had rather had the potential to liberate Leolo (also note Freud’s concept of sublimation and that the “sapere” as in homo sapiens can have a number of different meanings, at least one of them being obscene, a link mirrored also in the use made of the verb “to know” in English translations of the Bible at least since the King James Bible), rather than entrap him as would be a traditional interpretation of this resistance as “perversion” and “immature inabilities and blemish”.

    The struggles and damages that come with Adorno’s “libidinous resistance” are due to the fact that the established order, traditional, ethnocentric prejudices on behalf of people and society etc. do not allow for such and repress it, which results in different kinds of inabilities and damages in the individual that only superficially resemble those projected upon “perverts” in the traditional notions on “perversions”, a kind of vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy where any “normal” person’s perception in relation to these outcasts is tinted by confirmation bias. In his essay “Sexualtabu und Recht heute” (“Sexual taboo and the law today”), Adorno illustrates this concept with the example of gays (while it’s far from him to insinuate they’d be the only minority or “perverts” with such a socio-psychological dynamic, and I’m not meaning to say that Leolo would be gay either), saying that gay people may have many talents but that those are stifled because of society’s negative reaction towards gays, while at the same time their struggle against the social stigma can, if luck and circumstances allow and the individual outcast’s mental resilience is only bruised but not broken, foster special strengths and skills, all due to their libidnous resistance to the established order.

    Anyways, my understanding is that Leolo truly didn’t belong in his milieu (whether he’s truly been fathered by an Italian tomato or just because of his active imagination and bottled-up creativity) that’s made him a shy introvert and that a better education, as suggested by the word tamer but tragically dismissed by Leolo’s teacher/school principal, would have saved him from ending in the asylum. I believe Leolo had the potential in him to become a great artist, philosopher, or scholar, but his inability to escape his milieu broke him and ultimately drove him insane.

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