Before my digital screening of Laughter (Le Rire), a message from writer/director Martin Laroche played, in which the filmmaker asked us, the viewers, to “free [our] mind[s]” because his film wouldn’t always be realistic. While I’m all for suspension of disbelief, a film still has to earn that suspension. If it needs a preamble from the filmmaker in order to prep us, it probably won’t.
And Laughter doesn’t.
The film mostly follows Valérie (Léane Labrèche-Dor), a survivor of an unnamed civil war that resulted in genocidal actions on the part of authoritarian forces, in which numerous citizens were massacred and left buried in mass, unmarked graves.
In the present, Valérie lives with her partner, Gabriel (Alexandre Landry), and their lives seem happy together. A bit repetitive, but fulfilling nonetheless. She works at a long-term care facility, and there, she meets Jeanne (Micheline Lanctôt), a patient full of joie de vivre, who gives Valérie a new outlook on life. Soon, however, the officer who was instructed to shoot Valérie opens a bakery in her neighbourhood, and the traumas of her past resurface, forcing Valérie to confront the survivor’s guilt she’s kept suppressed since the war.
Laughter presents itself as a commentary on life, fate, and purpose. It’s about growing, overcoming, and, if not accepting your past, at least reconciling with it. The film opens on a short sequence between a woman and her dying mother, before transitioning into a choreographed dance sequence (death and life, get it?).
Immediately after the dance, we are thrust into the past (“THEN”), where Valérie and her boyfriend, Samuel (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne) are rounded up, stripped of their clothes and belongings, made to lie in a mass grave, and fired upon by a group of military police. Valérie survives and crawls her way through the bodies and out of the grave, escaping into the forest. After this, we are brought back into the present, and stay there for much of the film’s runtime.
While the film establishes this “Then and Now” structure early on, we very rarely move between the dual time frames. The war scene which opens the film is alluded to throughout, but its inclusion feels forced, especially since Valérie later relates the story of her escape to Jeanne in great detail. Retelling a story we’ve already seen feels superfluous, and renders the earlier violence—and Valérie’s prolonged suffering—gratuitous, even perverse.
And yet, it is precisely these scenes between Valérie and Jeanne that give the film some much needed levity. Labrèche-Dor and Lanctôt are wonderful together, their comedic timing, powerful presence, and warm, naturalistic interactions offering some necessary respite from the film’s more fatalistic tendencies.
While Laughter features wonderful performances by its talented cast, the convoluted imagery and jumbled message make for a tiresome—at times, unpleasant—watch. The film’s tedious philosophizing overwhelms its subject matter, while the film’s experimental flourishes—the unreliable narrative; random visual distortions; absurdist characters and asides—seem self-serving, even trivial.
And then, there’s its handling of war.
In Laugher, war doesn’t seem to have any effect on society as a whole, and we are only reminded of its occurrence by a few characters who are given very little opportunity to effectively heal. While this may be a commentary on humanity’s ability to forget atrocities, the film nevertheless positions the wartime experience as having a significant effect on its main character.
While Laughter isn’t a “war film” in a generic sense, rooting your central character’s trauma, and the narrative itself, within the context of war requires a deeper understanding of war’s lasting effects on people. Instead, Laroche bombards us with one existentialist monologue after another, the war narrative becoming little more than a plot point, a footnote, background noise for interpersonal melodrama.
Ultimately, we are left to collect the film’s disparate pieces, to put them together for…something. Judgement? Reflection? Reconciliation? Forgiveness? Understanding? It’s hard to tell because, by the end, the film’s pretentious moralism and rumination on the absurdity of life had became so overbearing that I was left feeling unconvinced, and entirely hollow. When the film ends on one final, self-reflexive meta-joke, it feels as though the laughter in question has always been directed solely at us.