Is it possible to touch the stars vicariously? Viking drolly examines the opportunity of being twenty feet from stardom with its portrait of a B-team. This fourth feature by Stéphane Lafleur (Tu dors Nicole, En terrains connus) is deadpan funny. Viking is further proof that Lafleur is one of Canada’s comedic greats.
The film finely balances its hand at understated humour and finds in its reserved observation of uber-Canadian timidity and cautiousness a greater parable about the values with which one weighs professional and personal relationships. The tone is precise and the chuckles are frequent.
A simple premise fuels a study of human relationships as five Canadians form a shadow mission for an American mission to Mars. Each person is assigned a role based on the astronaut who best fits his or her personality. The space authority studies how the humans behave in the simulation to anticipate the dynamic unfolding millions of miles away. Humans aren’t lab rats, though, and the study, inevitably, hits some turbulence.
“David” (Steve Laplante), for example, takes his role with utmost seriousness. His counterpart on the mission to Mars left a wife at home, as did he. Participating in a space mission, even without the space part, evokes a higher calling for him. David clashes with the group leader “Janet” (Fabiola N. Aladin), who takes her part even more seriously. The “astronauts” receive updates about interpersonal dynamics and the cues inform David and Janet of tension between them. Janet prods David and pushes his buttons, while he becomes visibly restless with her passive aggressive behaviour.
At the same time, “Liz,” a bald, sixty-something man (Denis Houle), becomes a bit too method with their character’s fear that her possessions are being stolen. Meanwhile, “Gary” (Hamza Haq) receives updates that he’s annoying Liz up in space. “Steven” (Larissa Corriveau), finally, brings a wild dynamic of sexual tension to the group. She and David (not “David”) have an obvious spark. However, their relationship isn’t in the script.
The exercise is a novel premise for wry observant comedy. Lafleur and co-writer Eric K. Boulianne find wonderful comedic beats in the minutiae of daily life. Small things in the “spaceship” spiral into magnanimous problems. The astronauts fixate on borrowed pens that aren’t returned, say, in lieu of the field research at hand. (Some expeditions outside the spaceship are especially funny feats of visual comedy.) Similarly, the group natters over sugar rations, debating daily about the politics of taking two spoonfuls of sugar in one’s coffee when the daily allotment is one per astronaut. While the participants offer rational feedback and solutions to ease the trivialities unfolding above in space, their commitment to their roles eventually gets the better of them.
Homage to HAL
Strikingly shot by Sara Mishara, who lensed last year’s Oscar bid Drunken Birds, Viking features humorous nods to space movies like 2001: A Space Odyssey. On one hand, the film expands upon the tableaux shots of films like En terrains connus where Lafleur found dry humour in wood panelling. The production design of the Viking lab is fabulously 1960s’ retro chic. It’s as if the experiment transported discarded items from the Diefenbunker, rather than bright snazzy abodes from contemporary Hollywood sci-fi.
The nods to 2001, however, underscore the theme that humans and machines are not alike. The spacesuits offer comfort zones where “David” and “Steven” can talk openly away from ears of HAL, or Mme. Comte (Marie Brassard) in this case, yet the participants’ commitment to their roles makes genuine connection impossible. The actors, too, brilliantly commit to their characters’ dual roles as people who are merely playing a part. Laplante offers an everyman for the ages, while Corriveau taps into the heart of the film. Aladin, Houle, and Haq are deadpan hilarious by playing it straight and keeping emotions in check.
A Grounded Fable
Viking asks how we can possibly study authentic human relationships while removing emotions from the equation. The experiment motivates the participants on Earth to anticipate the behaviour of their Mars-based counterparts based on their heads, rather than their hearts. The situational humour of the simulation, moreover, makes the observation of human connection strikingly profound in the era in which we live. Viking might be the most powerful “COVID” film yet that isn’t overtly about the pandemic. However, it’s hard to avoid seeing this group, quarantined and isolated, as a metaphor for our collective trauma. Viking reminds us that humans are social animals. Lafleur’s film observes how our fallibility, our desire for connection, and our emotional tempers ultimately distinguish us as human.
Fuelled by a jazzy score by Mathieu Charbonneau, Christophe Lamarche-Ledoux, and Organ Mood, Viking never goes for the uproarious belly laughs, nor the big emotional moments, nor the grand vistas one might expect in a space movie. Anyone looking for “Houston, we have a problem” tugs or Gravity-like vertigo is totally at the wrong film. Instead, Viking is a space movie that’s firmly grounded with both feet planted right here on Earth. It’s easily Lafleur’s best film yet.
Viking premiered at TIFF 2022.