Death of a Ladies’ Man: a tale of loss, addiction and redemption but not much character change

Matt Bissonnette, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (2020)

Inspired by the poetry and songs of Canadian poet / novelist / singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen, some of whose songs grace the film as its musical soundtrack, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” follows hard-drinking Montreal university professor Sam O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) whose life starts on a series of strange and unexpected turns beginning with finding his second wife Linda in flagrante delicto with a boyfriend. Their marriage broken down and heading for divorce, O’Shea starts seeing strange things: his long-dead father Ben (Brian Gleeson) turns up for one-on-one chats, he meets Frankenstein’s monster in a bar and a tiger-headed waitress in a restaurant. Perhaps he is under stress or having alcoholic delusions; a visit to his GP reveals a terminal brain tumour and O’Shea realises there are dreams he had been putting off a long time and which now demand fulfilment. Shoving his undergraduate literature classes off onto a colleague, O’Shea contacts and tells his ex-wife Genevieve (Suzanne Clement) and estranged children Layton (Antoine Olivier Pilon) and Josée (Karelle Tremblay) that he’s going back to Ireland to write his first novel. The children themselves need support – Layton has come out as gay and is in his first relationship with a man, and Josée is in a destructive relationship with a heroin junkie – but O’Shea flies off to Ireland and back to his childhood home in a small rural community where he almost promptly takes up with a young woman, Charlotte (Jessica Paré) and incurs the murderous wrath of a local man keen on her.

The giddy plot with its various sub-plots and their unexpected (if not quite plausible) resolutions works thanks in part to Byrne’s rumpled ease and charm as the otherwise self-absorbed and egotistical O’Shea as he leaves behind a trail of damaged relationships with consequences ranging from upset to anger to near murder. The film moves at a steady pace and the action is structured in three chapters that keep the various sub-plots separate so the plot appears more orderly than chaotic. Everything revolves around O’Shea, reflecting his self-absorption, and this means that some sub-plots go only so far and are never fully developed: the brain tumour part remains in the background and Layton’s sexuality and how this affects his relationship with O’Shea also stay dormant. How O’Shea’s family rallies around him and then how O’Shea manages to help Josée deal with her heroin addiction and come back to something resembling a normal life is not explored in much detail.

O’Shea’s chats with Dad reveal a childhood of trauma and loss that may underlie his womanising and alcohol addictions, leading to both his marriage breakdowns and his strained relationship with his children. The pattern of abandonment, trauma and loss has afflicted two generations in O’Shea’s family and threatens Josée’s health and life. Random incidents though work out to O’Shea’s benefit and eventually he is able to resolve most if not all his troubled conflicts and fulfil his ambitions of writing and publishing his first novel. Tying up loose pieces of his life brings reconciliation with his first family but also brings an unexpected sting.

The film labours under several themes: family trauma and loss that repeat through the generations; and the randomness of life and how it can derail order and cause crises but also lead perhaps to insight, purpose and eventually redemption. O’Shea eventually accepts and comes to terms with his delusions and the prospect of death itself. Things though tend to happen in such a way as to suggest that O’Shea is let off the hook for a great many serious occurrences and perhaps any lessons he might learn don’t penetrate very deeply into his consciousness. He may attend Alcoholics Anonymous sessions and swear off chasing pretty young women but the film’s general tenor as musical comedy / drama seems a bit too light-hearted to allow much character development and maturation in our hero. At the end of the film O’Shea still seems the same man he was at the beginning, with no great insights into his character and little understanding of how his childhood of abandonment and loss laid the foundation for his relationships with women and his children. He continually nags his ghost father about what happened to his mother and why she left the family even after his father admits he has no idea, and at no point during the film does O’Shea appear to acknowledge that whatever might have driven his mother to abandon him might be related to whatever drove him to leave Ireland: the lack of opportunity, the claustrophobic, even paranoiac nature of life in rural Ireland for those who didn’t conform to pre-1990s Irish social traditions.

The best part of the film is its scenery set in Montreal and rural Ireland which suggests a deeper social context to the dramas playing out in O’Shea’s life: urban Montreal, where comfortable middle-class people struggle to find purpose in dysfunctional lives in a deindustrialised environment and instead find only escapism in addiction, is a significant character in its own right, as is also rural Ireland which at first seems bracing and inviting but turns out to be restrictive and dysfunctional in its own way. That this aspect of the film is more felt than explored may be seen as a weakness but viewers cannot expect the all-too-human cast of characters, with what they already have to cope with, to be able to recognise what is oppressing them and do something about it.

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