The Hamburg Filmfest was my first film festival, and I was lucky to see a few very good films across five sections of the festival. A number of films have stuck with me – some because they were intense, or moving, or beautiful, and others because they disgusted me or (more happily) made me laugh out loud.
Two of the movies that fall into that last category – KING OF THE BELGIANS and SPLIT – were mockumentaries, a film style I associate with Christopher Guest, the master of faux documentaries, whose hilarious sendups include This is Spinal Tap (1984) and A Mighty Wind (2003). I thoroughly enjoyed KING OF THE BELGIANS – and was delighted that the lead actor, Peter van den Begin, participated in a Q&A at the screening I attended. But the French-Canadian film SPLIT(original title Écartée) was my Filmfest highlight for quirky, impromptu humor, and it’s an excellent example of how creativity and artistic vision can outshine a small budget.
SPLIT, which was featured in the ‘Voilà!’ section, is the first feature film from director Lawrence Côté-Collins, who also wrote the screenplay. It purports to be the story of Anick (Marjolaine Beauchamp), a social worker who is filming a documentary in northern Quebec about Scott (Ronald Cyr), an ex-con in his 50s, and his much younger wife, Jessie (Whitney Lafleur), who is in her 20s. Scott has been a petty criminal and convict almost his entire adult life, and Anick’s film is intended to document what ‘normal’ life is like, now that he’s out of prison. She moves into the house with the couple for a week to film their lives, but ultimately ends up disrupting and destroying their paper-thin dream world.
Côté-Collins was present for a Q&A, and gave interesting insight into how the film had come to fruition. She used an entirely non-professional cast of actors, including Cyr, who is an ex-con himself and a friend of her father’s, and was astonished to find that her trio of actors had remarkable chemistry together. SPLIT is an extremely layered and complicated kind of mockumentary, indebted to the genre of reality TV, especially those shows that aim to provoke dramatic reactions from people cooped up together in domestic settings. But the fact that SPLIT is a mockumentary means that it is therefore a faked reality…with an additional twist because of Côté-Collins’ decision to use non-professional actors. With the cast relying heavily upon improvisation – as is the case with many mockumentaries – the line between reality and fiction blurs once again. And the film is steeped in the pervasive voyeuristic nature of our social media and online lives, where more-and-more elements of our private lives are laid bare for many to see. I wasn’t surprised, given all of this, to hear a small percentage of the audience admit during the Q&A that they thought the film was an actual documentary. Split stuck me as a successful film because of all this blurring of what is real and what is not, and whether it matters.
What makes the film particularly engaging is not only how “filmmaker” Anick captures Scott and Jessie’s characters through her interview questions but also how much is revealed about them by the contents and décor of their home, which is so meticulously detailed and carefully constructed that it makes the 1960s period sets of Mad Men look like a hack job. Along with her art director, Côté-Collins spent a month living in the tiny house that functions as the film set, designing and implementing every detail that makes the film function. Scott and Jessie are (what is uncharitably called) white trash, and their home is filled with an astonishing collection of tacky tchotchkes. Scott finds solace making 3D puzzles, and there are plenty of very funny moments in SPLIT where he’s shown gluing together wonky cardboard versions of the Papal Palace in Rome or European castles. Also funny is Scott’s almost indecipherable Québécois accent and slang, especially because he makes such kooky mundane pronouncements, like explaining to Anick that the Pope lives in the Papal Palace. Not to be left out, Jessie also has a themed collection, and the filmmakers clearly delighted in finding every plastic, crystal, or porcelain dolphin available in Canada to stuff into their heaving house.
Throughout the film, Jessie is shown watching TV a few times and I found myself wondering what that incredibly boring gameshow could be. Similarly, there is a terrible song that Jessie and Anick sing along to at various points, with the lyrics “Hashtag Weekend, Hashtag Fun.” I was convinced by the end of the movie that pop music in Quebec must be the most awful in the world, and was completely amused to learn that both the Hashtag song and the TV gameshow had also been created from scratch by the filmmakers. Every single thing seen or heard on screen was carefully created and/or chosen to create a convincingly self-contained world. Of course plenty of films work this way, creating an alternate reality in which we’re asked to suspend our disbelief. But precisely because it is a mockumentary, pretending to be showing us something ‘real’, it raises the question of whether it matters if we can’t tell the difference. SPLIT relies on the frequency and familiarity with which we do look into real lives, and entwines reality and fiction so deceptively that what really matters is how funny and entertaining it is to watch.