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Director Deanne Foley takes a familiar story and turns it into a film that demands to be seen on the big screen
AN AUDIENCE OF CHAIRS (Deanne Foley). 93 minutes. Opens Friday (March 22). See listing. Rating: NNNN
I find myself falling back on this Roger Ebert observation quite a lot lately: “It’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it.” A familiar subject can be invigorated by an unexpected approach. Don’t judge a film by its poster.
Deanne Foley’s An Audience Of Chairs looks like a certain kind of independent drama, one we see a lot of lately. It tracks the downward spiral of Maura (Carolina Bartczak), a woman whose bipolar disorder derails her career as a concert pianist and gradually alienates her from her husband (Christopher Jacot) and their young daughters. We know the shape of this narrative, down to the specific points of the plot.
And that’s fine, because director Foley and screenwriter Rosemary House’s approach to the story is more immersive than most: they know we’re familiar with how these stories work, and they use that to their advantage. An Audience Of Chairs is more about the experience of being Maura from moment to moment, and day to day, and what that does to her – and how the damage radiates outward to the people around her. She doesn’t understand it, but we do, and it’s crushing.
Weirdly enough – and bear with me – it’s the same approach Julian Schnabel took to Vincent Van Gogh’s final months in At Eternity’s Gate, sticking close to his subject and letting Willem Dafoe convey deep emotional torment with the tilt of his head or the slump of his shoulder.
It may not operate on quite the same scale, but An Audience Of Chairs works similarly well, focusing on small, defining moments in Maura’s life – a distraction that proves devastating, a tense conversation with her sister (Edie Inksetter), a chance meeting at a ferry terminal with a sympathetic stranger (Gord Rand) who, thank Christ, is not a figment of her imagination. (The film is smart enough that it understands we might be worried about that played-out twist.)
And, most important of all, Foley and House trust their star. Bartczak is still probably best known for playing Magneto’s doomed wife in X-Men: Apocalypse, but that’ll change now. She’s terrific here, holding the screen with confidence and complexity, conveying Maura’s psychological state without any hysterics or tics. She’s aided immensely by House’s effective compression of Joan Clark’s novel, and by Foley’s simple, direct choices sometimes all you need to do is point the camera at the actor and let her do the work.
Look, I know what the landscape is like for small indie dramas at the megaplex, let alone small indie dramas from Canada. Very few people will end up watching An Audience Of Chairs in a movie theatre, and I expect the filmmakers are even more aware of this than I am. But it’s literally my job to tell you what’s worth your time and what isn’t, and I’m telling you this: if An Audience Of Chairs sounds even remotely like something you’d like to see, you should probably see it on a big screen with other people around you. It’s a movie about empathy. It’s an experience to be shared.