Friday, December 21, 2018

The Cosmic Consciousness of Ian Lagarde

 “You eat because you know another plate is coming. The promise of a new plate is the promise of a new start.” – All You Can Eat Buddha

I don’t think anyone was really prepared for Ian Lagarde’s All You Can Eat Buddha when it premiered at TIFF in 2017. Who was this Montreal filmmaker? What was this Québécois film set in a Caribbean resort? Why mix the sacred with the profane, the spirituality of Buddhism with the indulgence of an all you can eat buffet? But as per the sad realities of Canadian film exhibition and marketing, I reckon few people saw it outside of its own province (where it received some accolades and awards), which is a shame, because it’s one of the most luminous and mysterious films recently made in this country that continuously offers itself up for contemplation and inspiration. I’m sure it’ll come as no shock or offence to anyone if I state that 2018 was a bad year for Canadian cinema. Some noteworthy exceptions aside, most of which reached any form of mainstream attention was aesthetically worthless and culturally correct. There is consistently no desire for innovation or the skill to achieve it. And a desire for positive representation has only lead to non-offensive stereotypes. All of this just comes off as non-dramatic, boring and fake. This is if the work even has aspirations of cultural expression, a trait that has been diminishing in front of a weak federal cultural policy that prioritizes international co-productions that continuously erase any form of regional specificity.
It’s not that All You Can Eat Buddha is a beacon of Québécois culture. As aside from the accent of the spoken French language and a couple of references to the French-Canadian province there isn’t much discussion about the nation. But instead it stands out for its mystery and style. It tells the story of Mike, a diabetic larger fellow, who goes on vacation to the Hotel Palacio in Cuba. After saving an octopus he receives supernatural powers that allows him to heal others but which comes at a self-destructive cost. The more he helps, the more it harms his own body. The film culminates with Mike’s body half blue due to his diabetes and with the El Palacio torn-down because of a civil war. If describing the plot of All You Can Eat Buddha seems absurd it's that it works best as an aesthetic experience of a cosmic consciousness: its simple absurdity allows for the opening up towards thinking differently.
The beauty of All You Can Eat Buddha comes from how it doesn’t resemble anything you would have seen. Lagarde’s project begins with the sublime: What new images can be created? How to encounter the unknown? And what would be the stakes of this project? Lagarde not only creates new visions but through them there is also the possibility of new human relations and new thoughts to exist. This is the total liberty of All You Can Eat Buddha. There is a refusal of a naturalism and the sociological as it rather experiment in film technique, an ambiguousness and a dream-like temporality. It progresses through minimal dialogue, ambient exposition and slow zooms, piercing stares and voice-over narration. The film works on a register of wonder and mystery, beauty and contemplation. There is the suggestion is that there is something holy and spiritual in regards to Mike but which is never explicitly explained. This is only heightened by the sense of wonder around Mike and the psychedelic scenes around his hallucinations. 
The experience of watching All You Can Eat Buddha is not rational. Instead it's more experiential as it heightens sensations, mood and atmosphere. There isn’t anything really like it in Canadian cinema: First off there are its carnivalesque characters, then there is its Caribbean setting, and finally there is its talking octopus! The closest thing to it that I can think of is Andrei Tarkovsky's Stalker. It’s the best thing that Lagarde has done. Aside from being a photographer, Lagarde's film work includes a Carte blanche short film for the Festival du nouveau cinéma where in a Maddin-like style a man and a women meet in a cabin and he ends up giving birth to a large golden egg. There's Vent Solaire (2011) about a strange cult and Merce (2017) that follows a few teens in central Havana. But perhaps the best ones are Éclat du Jour (2013) about delinquent Québécois teenagers that cause trouble in a small Montréal neighbourhood and Grimaces (2016) which is a Tashlinesque tale of otherness through the continuation of the weird and funny faces children make well into adulthood. All of these works, which are created with the artistic collaborator Gabrielle Tougas-Fréchette, aim to show and create something new but which reach with All You Can Eat Buddha a whole other level. I’m really excited to see what Lagarde does next and I have no qualms with stating that he's one of the country's best directors.
But it's hard to really position Lagarde or this film as a model for others. The film ecosystem in Canada is so risk-adverse and fragile while it explicitly aims towards an ‘American’ universalism to the detriment of any cultural expression (especially in English Canada). If All You Can Eat Budhha teaches us anything it's that we should: experience differently, think differently, feel differently, see differently. As long as there is a collective consciousness that is threading on tired clichés from south of the border and has a mentality of defeat in face of a perceived sense of lack then the battle is lost before it even started. Better to follow Mike’s footsteps in All You Can Eat Buddha and to find inspiration in the divine even if it shows its face in the profane. Success can only be found through creating a new territory.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

You know that there was a Canadian author, Richard Maurice Bucke, that wrote a book called Cosmic Consciousness in the early 20th century (1901) documenting mystical experiences among different historical and contemporary people. Great article. I am going to Cuba in January. I will look out for the Octopus.