It’s been a while since we’ve seen Gabriel Byrne step into a lead role worthy of his talents. And if what we’ve had to wait for is Death Of A Ladies’ Man, then it’s been worth it.
Byrne stars as Samuel O’Shea, a McGill University poetry professor whose fondness for the drink increases after his second marriage falls apart. With his career at a standstill, and with adult children (Antoine Olivier Pilon, Karelle Tremblay) who have no use for him, Samuel seems primed to hit rock bottom when he starts hallucinating fantastical beasts and improbable sights.
Naturally, life has a way of kicking you when you’re down and, in our lead’s case, that’s about to become true in a big way. Samuel takes a grim prognosis from his doctor as a sign to return to his native Ireland and finally put pen to paper to create his long-unwritten masterpiece. As he faces up to his own mortality and the ghost of his dead father (Brian Gleeson), Samuel finds something totally unexpected: a new love in the form of the Leonard Cohen-reading Montreal ex-pat (Jessica Paré) running the local shop.
Written and directed by Matt Bissonnette (Passenger Side), Death Of A Ladies’ Man is a delightful surprise. Samuel’s hallucinations—whether it’s having a pint with Frankenstein’s monster or watching giant Canadian geese reign fire down upon Montreal—are used to charmingly comic effect and belie the film’s mid-size budget. Viewers teeter between the various realities of Samuel’s mental state as the film shifts wildly between the downright silly to the darker side of alcoholism.
But Death Of A Ladies’ Man isn’t just the story of Samuel, it’s one of addiction (be it to drugs, alcohol or the opposite sex), mental illness, and how the two are closely entwined. That said, the film avoids the perils and pitfalls of similar morality tales and instead, gains strength from its focus on one man’s undoing as he falls deeper into his own version of Hell. Though his hallucinations of a woman with a tiger’s head may seem silly, Bissonnette makes it clear throughout that Samuel’s issues are grounded in reality. He smartly zeros in on the consequences of Samuel’s life choices and the complicated space between death and dying, giving us a rare look inside this kind of illness.
The music of Leonard Cohen—who inspires both the film’s title and story trajectory—underscores Samuel’s physical and mental journey of suffering. Bissonnette is clearly influenced by Cohen, having previously written and directed the Montreal-set Looking For Leonard. But really, who isn’t? Cohen’s evocative songs fill the set pieces and perfectly encapsulate the drama.
The many differing elements of the film fall neatly into place thanks to a great lead performance by Byrne. The 70-year-old Irishman delights equally as the charming and maddeningly drunken playboy, and the newly doting dad Samuel never managed to be in his younger years. With all due respect to Byrne and his supporting acting choices of late (hello, Hereditary), Death Of A Ladies’ Man is a fitting showcase worthy of the actor’s talents.
Having made the rounds at the festival circuit in 2020, Death Of A Ladies’ Man is set for a theatrical release on March 12.