- This essay will inevitably contain spoilers!

'C.R.A.Z.Y.' (2005)

- A review essay by Richard Harrison (2007)

Given the glut of predictable family Christmas films emanating from Hollywood each year it is a breath of fresh air to see a film that takes Christmas as its apex yet casts a completely different slant upon it. Such a film is C.R.A.Z.Y., an exhilarating Canadian 2005 release directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, which first appeared in the UK during a not-so-wintry April 2006. The director himself has succinctly described his film thus:

‘It's a story of two love affairs. A father's love for his five sons. And one son's love for his father, a love so strong it compels him to live a lie. That son is Zac Beaulieu, born on the 25th of December 1960, different from all his brothers, but desperate to fit in. During the next 20 years, life takes Zac on a surprising and unexpected journey that ultimately leads him to accept his true nature and, even more importantly, leads his father to love him for who he really is. A mystical fable about a modern-day Christ-like figure, "C.R.A.Z.Y" exudes the beauty, the poetry and the madness of the human spirit in all its contradictions.’

Taking ten years to move between idea and cinema screens worldwide, C.R.A.Z.Y. is an unusual film in that it outsold both Harry Potter and Star Wars releases on DVD in Quebec, yet was independently financed by its director Jean-Marc Vallee. It is also an interesting film in being French-Canadian (as opposed to an English-Canadian release such as Sugar(2004) for example). Widely celebrated and admired, the film is a vastly complex odyssey which weaves a magical aura of cinematic style, finely observed performances and an evocative soundtrack (the financing of which had a large impact on the budget). Although its intricacy is hard to put into words, C.R.A.Z.Y. is not purely an effective blend of gripping narrative and ebullience of style, but also one of the finest films to come out of not only Canada but anywhere on Earth.

One key strength of the film is that all members of the dysfunctional family it presents, from Monsieur and Madame Beaulieu through to their five sons, are actually very likable, even though they do have some less than endearing characteristics (even Zac describes three of his brothers as “morons”!). Zac becomes our main focus from the first frame, however, establishing a strong bond between the viewer and his character.

From its first words and images C.R.A.Z.Y. promises its audience something different- the lilting opening to Elvis Presley’s Santa Claus Is Back In Town fading in over images of a foetus in the womb is accompanied by the mature Zac’s voiceover: ‘As far back as I can remember;/I’ve hated Christmas’ before we are shown the first view of the Beaulieu family, united and happy. The birth of Zac, seemingly a happy event, soon brings strains to this placid, conventional background however, especially when his Mother and Father clash over a present for their son as Zac (and the audience) watch through the car’s wing mirror. Early vignettes of Zac’s life in this vein serve several key narrative functions- they establish the emergence of the boy’s character, align the audience closely with him and also draw attention to the relationship with his parents which comes under strain throughout the film.

One of the many interesting aspects of C.R.A.Z.Y. is the parallels created between characters and situations- for example those between Zac and his Mother. We first see this when Zac suffers a wet dream in the bed at Summer Camp- the rain that pours down both there and at home link him to his Mother by the use of Earth elements, the subsequent cross-cutting between the boy and Madame Beaulieu- both breathing deeply- and their respective positioning suggest a mirror image and a powerful bond. As the young Zac is immersed in water by two unforgiving contemporaries there is a flash cut- and the older Zac (who will dominate the film) is seen, rising not from water but from his bed but catching his breath as though he were emerging from water. The use of the images of the teenage Zac (superbly played by Marc-Andre Grondin) accompanied by Pink Floyd’s Shine On You Crazy Diamond moves the film from Zac’s childhood into his teenage years and in doing so from the realms of superb filmmaking into the realms of the poetically sublime.

Zac’s teenage incarnation is awash with irony- he exercises hard yet smokes, and the Rolling Stones song Sympathy For The Devil runs through his head during Midnight Mass- and he imagines the congregation reacting to it and lifting him up to the ceiling. Of course, this is another parallel to earlier in the film (when the young Zac imagines the Mass being curtailed), but this is more extreme- more outlandish- symbolising the direction Zac himself is taking. This incident swiftly moves on to Zac’s 15th birthday party and seeing his coquettish Cousin Brigitte and her boyfriend Paul, which establishes Zac as a confused young man who admires his Cousin’s sense of élan yet seems to admire her boyfriend more.

This sexual confusion is underlined in one of the most memorable scenes in the film when Michelle has left Zac alone in his bedroom. Putting a record (Space Oddity by David Bowie) on and falling back on his bed, Zac lights a cigarette. As the smoke pervades his senses, he remembers the sensuous moment of watching Brigitte and Paul dance at the party, the return image of Zac’s face dissolving in the smoke to his face next to that of Brigitte and Paul. A fast zoom out shows them to be beside a swimming pool, Zac’s smoke ring then moving up to space before a fast tilt down brings everything back to reality again, but it is a different reality- a moment of self-realisation. Here, in one of the greatest moments in the film, Zac is shown moving slowly and miming in time to the song. Using the physique of Marc-Andre Grondin to great effect, the gradual track in to the mirror then slowly dissolves but once. This is all the editing that is required to assemble a simple but highly effective moment which firmly demarcates Zac’s change in sexual direction, this change being foregrounded by his brother Antoine who breaks up the moment to complain that Zac is making the family look idiotic in his unconventional behaviour.

The gulf between what Zac is and what his family (particularly his Father) want him to be is at the heart of C.R.A.Z.Y., but there is also the ever-present complex interaction of memory and desire. Thus, as Zac later rides a motorbike through the streets the low angle and Patsy Cline song Crazy are accompanied by a flashback to his birthday party and Brigitte and Paul’s dance once again. His desire to bump into Brigitte is subsequently realised, but the presence of her new beau Emilio dashes Zac’s hopes in crystallising Paul’s absence. Then, as the song fades away, there is another moment when Zac tries to reconcile Fate as he drives toward a red traffic light- ‘I would be cured of my asthma…/if I only managed to get through’. This link between physical health and success in love references the vanity of youth who believe that physical attractiveness is the only way of obtaining love. This point in the film is also marked in its very refusal to adhere to traditional narrative conventions- no one in the film is safe, the precariousness of the human condition is ever present…mortality waits in the wings ready for the curtain call which may occur at any moment, not necessarily at the end.

The following segment of the film is notable for its refusal to shy away from issues that do confront families in the real world, presenting prostitution and drug taking within a short space of screen time. Zac is then seen with the capricious Michelle, but watched by Toto the Weirdo whom Zac chases off. The danger for Zac is in his conformity (or lack of it) with sexual norms, but it is also his uncertainty which is really of concern- he does not really know what he wants. He then states ‘I want to be like everyone else’, but the problem is that everyone is different, this unachievable paradox seeming to mark his character out as one who will be relentlessly unhappy in a futile search for love. Zac’s confused state even causes him to turn to violence soon after, and he punches the unlucky Toto relentlessly- the use of slow motion making the scene more sorrowful and self-destructive than shocking.

However, Zac does grow closer to achieving love as the snow falls and he spends time with Toto in the car, but is seen by his Father (here a parallel can be drawn back to when the young Zac is caught dressing in his Mother’s clothes by Monsieur Beaulieu). The comparison between Father and son is marked: both wear similar coloured coats, but one is done up (both against the cold but also repressing any outburst of love) and one open (symbolising a more carefree and liberal lifestyle). Later, in another striking scene, Zac (the snow glistening on his hair and face) sees Paul across a record-shop. This time, ironically, Zac cannot take action to achieve his desired meeting with Paul, but attempts action to rectify his asthmatic condition instead- ‘I would be cured/if I could simply make it through the storm’. His arrival at home sees Zac shivering with cold but also emotionally drained, for he has achieved his aim this time, the moment of epiphany marked by his face slipping slowly out of frame to leave that of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust, the implication being that Bowie is his protector, his God, his spiritual salvation.

A film like C.R.A.Z.Y., relying so heavily on time and its passing, needs to move swiftly yet distinctly between specific time periods. A transition is achieved directly after the picture of Bowie is seen by a simple dissolve to the front cover of Time magazine marking the death of John Lennon which establishes the new time period as Christmas 1980, and Zac’s 20th birthday. As the celebratory meal winds down, and Raymond watches another Quebec-set film on television (Le Martien de Noel, 1971), the seemingly unified and stable family unit is ultimately undermined by Zac who watches Raymond’s violent outburst being restrained with an air of detached amusement, the voice-over admitting ‘how sweet life was since I had become so happy and fulfilled’, the next shot showing Zac and Michelle’s passion. That Christian’s wedding finds Zac and Paul together in the car enjoying a ‘shotgun’ (blowback of cannabis) as they did after Zac’s 15th birthday party throws this close relationship with Michelle into some doubt, especially after events conspire against it. The confrontation between Monsieur Beaulieu and his son in the rain that concludes the wedding sequence evokes the previous occasions when Zac’s sexuality is open to parental involvement, but this time there are no soft snowflakes to temper the moment- Father sends son away into the rainy night, finally ashamed of his lifestyle.

As well as marking a firm break with his family, this moment also marks Zac’s physical decline into decadent freefall before his search for spiritual salvation takes him to Jerusalem. There, suffering, he telephones his Mother- the connections between them remaining strong despite their physical distance from each other. Zac’s typically human reaction to hearing her voice then being unable to speak- overcome by the sheer emotion of the moment- consolidates the rich understanding of humanity present across the whole of C.R.A.Z.Y.. Alone in the desert, Zac’s scan of the bare horizon and his feeling of complete isolation aligns us yet closer to him and also references the picture Mrs.Whatshername has on her wall in his loneliness and need of help. Then, the film returns to the Beaulieu home and Zac’s Mother waking in the night as if summoned by the spirit of her son who is losing the very breath of life. In a remarkably spiritual moment she splashes water towards her mouth, the action being mirrored by Raymond who then becomes an old man, pouring water onto the prostrate form of Zac in the sand. The moment of fear (and yet another brush with death) over, Zac brings himself together and returns home to find any previous domestic balance displaced by Raymond’s suffering. As the family are united in their grief, even Monsieur Beaulieu seems to understand Zac: ‘I’d like to redeem myself/ but I don’t know how’, the moment between Father and son being a beautiful one of mutual understanding and compassion. Subsequently, and in another ironic twist, it is Zac who holds the family together, the reconciliation with his Father being not only extremely satisfying but beautifully affecting. The tension- and its release- throughout C.R.A.Z.Y. transcends genre and film itself, for it presents the emotions and rigours of life in all its many forms.

Despite its focus on growing up C.R.A.Z.Y. is not purely another great movie about childhood, however. It is simultaneously an effortless evocation of an era, a celebration of the many highs and lows of youth and also a deeply touching film that seeks to express the feelings that are so tangible yet so elusive- the often unspoken love between Father and son, the special relationship a boy has with his Mother and ultimately that whatever happens families survive and pull together at times of crisis. The only negative aspect to the whole film is its brilliance, depressing to those who are budding filmmakers yet inspiring in that someone has attempted to visualise a vast panorama of human experience and emotion- and succeeded. Brilliant beyond mere words, C.R.A.Z.Y. is a landmark film that is definitely not just for Christmas but for all seasons.

'C.R.A.Z.Y.' is available on DVD from Soda Pictures.