Post-Frances Ha, any film about a wayward twenty-something female and the close friend she slowly loses seems destined for immediate (and probably lazy) comparison to Noah Baumbach’s 2012 hit, particularly one sharing a black and white colour palette. If anything, Lafleur’s eccentric, wry and occasionally acidic Tu dors Nicole has more in common with Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 adaptation of Ghost World, and with strong, expressive formal chops on display in the crisp 35mm photography of every frame, the French-Canadian feature has a considerably more distinctive aesthetic than Baumbach’s looser and less composition-concerned digital foray.
Nicole (Julianne Côté) is 22 years old, fresh out of college and stuck looking after her parents’ home over one long, lazy summer while mum and dad are on an extended vacation. She is caught between wanting independence and being reluctant to let go of her adolescence; a post-graduate malaise of aimlessness, insomnia, passive-aggression and self-sabotage. She mostly hangs out with best friend Veronique (Catherine St-Laurent), and the two make plans to visit Iceland to do “nothing, but somewhere else” with the help of Nicole’s new credit card (which she amusingly considers the equivalent of free money). There’s also her older brother, Remi (Marc-André Grondin), who also inhabits the large Quebecois home, using it as a recording studio and perpetual hangout for his band, which includes JF (Francis La Haye), who Nicole has a crush on.
Also recurring throughout the paper-thin narrative is 10-year-old boy Martin, one of a few surreal but never intrusive elements scattered throughout the otherwise grounded film. Martin (Godefroy Reding) tries to seduce Nicole, his former babysitter, with world-weary wisdom. Martin’s voice has already changed despite little else suggesting he’s reached puberty, so Lafleur dubs the child actor with the voice of a grown man (Alexis Lefebvre), whose almost James Mason-like tones make Martin’s platitudes almost seem like they have weight.
Thanks to the anchor of Lafleur’s formal elegance and Côté’s winning, bone-dry lead performance, surreal evocations like Martin’s voice don’t come across like forced “indie quirk.” It isn’t like, to name one recent example, the talking cat narrator in Miranda July’s The Future. Thanks to the heavily formalist approach, the surreal touches fit in with the dream-like haze of the entire movie. Lafleur’s approach also makes it stand out among a crowded coming-of-age genre of late.
It’s a patiently told story not reliant on exposition or on making Nicole an overly likeable figure. Lafleur focuses on both small moments of just killing time and simmering rage regarding underpaid work in a loose narrative, as opposed to a succession of major life changes. The result is that Nicole becomes a much more relatable character than many adult-child leads. Her ending is not one of hopeful resignation or a grand achievement, but is instead focused on a small gesture of valid anger. It’s a welcome direction. Change doesn’t always have to be monumental, and small films like Tu dors Nicole can still be great without high stakes.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is currently the managing film editor at Sound On Sight, and a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny.