Singer/songwriter Leonard Cohen has often had his work incorporated into film. Sarah Polley’s Take This Waltz was one such work that set itself to the name-same song, whilst the documentary Marianne & Leonard highlighted the singer’s relationship with his “muse” and the time they spent together throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s.
Death of a Ladies’ Man, so named after Cohen’s 1977 record, feels like a surreal mixture of each film’s temperaments, basing itself around a Cohen-like character, whilst removing itself from any form of reality through its unique narrative approach.
The “ladies’ man” on profile is Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne), a poetry teacher and not entirely-functional alcoholic who’s at a deathly crossroads in his life. His second wife has left him for a younger man (or, more correctly, he’s kicked her out on account of catching her in the act) and a series of hallucinations have him pondering both his sanity and his health.
These hallucinations set themselves to the sounds of Cohen’s work, and, as bizarre as they are, they’re often the most intriguing moments of Matthew Bissonnette‘s unbalanced film. There’s a heft of thematics on view here, with the toxicity of Sean’s relationships and the destructiveness of his own behaviour primarily on view; and, not to skip a predictable beat, the absence of his mother growing up being thrown in for expected measure.
As much as the film starts to crumble under the weight of its inventive ambition – and a second-half location shift to Ireland only stalls the film’s momentum further (despite welcoming a lovely addition in Jessica Paré) – Death of a Ladies’ Man perseveres with an admirable grit, thanks in large part to the committed Byrne who never wavers, serving as a reminder of how commanding and tender a performer he truly is.
A straightforward narrative that’s ironically both enhanced and hindered by its zeal, Bissonnette may be biting off more than he can chew with such an honouring of Cohen’s work, but he at least doesn’t surrender to utilising the singer’s seminal “Hallelujah”, a beautiful song that’s now lost all of its impact due to its cultural over-saturation. That and Byrne’s performance are two things we can truly be grateful for.
TWO AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Death of a Ladies’ Man is screening in select Australian theatres from May 20th, 2021.