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Corbo | 2014 TIFF Review

Vive la FLQ: Revolutionary Tactics as Performance of Identity

With Corbo, Mathieu Denis’ second feature-length film, the Quebecois director has established an auteur focus on the nature of identity. He’s also raises some potentially incendiary subjects by depicting the events leading up to the October Crisis without necessarily criticizing the use of violence to incite social revolution. It’s a very fine line that he walks, making a rather serviceable, mostly flat, film about the psychology of aggressive activists, while tethering it to a larger, overriding cultural ethos in modern day Francophone Quebec.

The vessel for these didactics is 16-year-old Jean Corbo (Anthony Therrien), an idealistic adolescent trapped in the vicious cycle of lacking a clear sense of community and identity. Born of Quebecois and Italian descent, he’s marginalized by merit of being Francophone but removed from the plight of those mired in the issue by sheer merit of coming from a mixed, more affluent and privileged, background. As such, he’s left without a vision of his own identity, making him susceptible to the suggestions of two decidedly radical French boys that usher him into the world of Frantz Fanon and the idea of repossessing identity through violence in the face of colonial pressuring.

Denis’ approach to this material isn’t particularly revolutionary (pun intended). His framing, though classicist, doesn’t have any substantive vision beyond passive observation. Until the climactic sequence, he’s content to utilize a stationary, non-invasive vision that services the script and the actors without adding any sort of aesthetic dimension to the text. This leaves only the story, which is told in a very linear, uncomplicated fashion, to drive Corbo forward.

Now, amidst the highly expository bouts of dialogue flavored with decidedly pointed broad political points to position each character very clearly on a very narrow social spectrum, there are some key points. Denis is keen on ensuring that identity, or lack thereof, is at the forefront of his discussion. Jean, whose life purpose only takes hold when given a mission that defines his sense of self and binds him to a community—a countercultural community—demonstrates the rigidity in ideology of someone lacking individual discernment. Like those ushered into a cult, he’s someone weak of character that’s easily manipulated into a cyclic thought process if validated for contextually abject behaviour. This is why his decision to set off bombs and engage in other erratic tactics to further the agenda of the FLQ isn’t particularly surprising. He’s a vessel of misguided rage.

Clearly, Denis is making a comparison to the current state of Quebec. Though the powers have shifted since the days when financial and linguistic inequality subjugated, there is still a sense of French identity as oppositional to the bigger national Canadian identity. As such, this lack of community and self poses a political threat; something that can be seen in the radicalized protesting and social movement campaigns that are particularly aggressive in Quebec.

In a way, Corbo posits the province as a ticking time bomb, which has some merit, even if his presentation is a tad hyperbolic and glib. And while this broad metaphor works for what it is, the superficial elements of the narrative, wherein Jean is ultimately framed as a bit of a hero, struggle to gel, sending mixed messages about what exactly Denis is trying to say. A cursory review would suggest that he’s encouraging youths to hop on idealized bandwagons and engage in extremely dangerous tactics to inspire change within a framework they’re far too whimsical, sweet-natured and unlearned to understand. But even that isn’t entirely fair, since the conclusion could be interpreted differently based on how radical the viewer is.

What is clear is that the stylization and sense of cinema that pops up in the third act demonstrates that Denis is capable of far more than his rather humdrum presentation preceding suggests. As such, the hope is that his next film will have the layered nuance necessary to make it work on a thematic, aesthetic and structural level simultaneously.

Reviewed on September 12th at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival – Discovery Programme. 119 Minutes


Robert Bell is a Toronto-based film critic for and Exclaim! Magazine, where he was also the editor for film festivals and books. Robert covers North American Film Festivals such as Sundance, Hot Docs, Tribeca and TIFF. Robert studied film theory and screenwriting at York University and has a background in independent film production. Top Films From Contemporary Film Auteurs: Campion (The Piano), Kiarostami (Certified Copy), von Trotta (Hannah Arendt), Marsh (The Theory of Everything), Haneke (The White Ribbon), von Trier (Antichrist), Seidl (Dog Days), Moodysson (Lilya 4-Ever), Ramsay (Ratcatcher). Winterbottom (The Claim), Malick (The Tree of Life), Ceylan (Once Upon a Time in Anatolia), Cronenberg (Dead Ringers), Verhoeven (Starship Troopers), Bigelow (Point Break), Jordan (The Crying Game), The Dardennes (Lorna's Silence), Zyvagintsev (The Return), Porumboiu (Police, Adjective), Ozon (Dans la Maison).

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