MONKEY WARFARE written and directed by Reginald Harkema, with Don McKellar, Tracy Wright and Nadia Litz. An Odeon release. 75 minutes. Opens Friday (December 15) at the Royal. See Indie & Rep Films, page 95. Rating: NNNN Rating: NNNN
There's a coffee cup shot in mon key Warfare, and it's a pleasure to behold. For anyone who worships at the altar of cinema built by Jean-Luc Godard between 1959 and 1967, that coffee cup is like a glimpse of the beating heart of Jesus.
Writer-director Reg Harkema wears his faith proudly. Quoting the contemplative shot from Godard's Two Or Three Things I Know About Her announces a moral and stylistic framework for Monkey Warfare.
Although it's set in Parkdale, Toronto, 2006, this film is inpired by the euphoric radicalism of Left Bank Paris 40 years ago. In other words, if you can't dig the funk of Mao and Coca-Cola, there's a Cameron Diaz movie playing at the Varsity. Fuck off.
Having bit lovingly from Godard's A Woman Is A Woman with his debut film, A Girl Is A Girl, Harkema now undresses La Chinoise. Real-life couple Don McKellar and Tracy Wright play Dan and Linda, former Left Coast radicals now retired to a quiet life turning garbage pickings into eBay sales. Looked at through pot goggles, that's a revolutionary move.
All's good until Dan meets Susan (Nadia Litz), a much younger wannabe radical. Dan's impressed by her beret and pert nose and soon invites her home to show off his old MC5 LPs and reminisce about the Black Panthers.
This bedroom seduction scene is charged, unpredictable and genuinely hot. Harkema throws down a few choice Godard moves, but directs his actors and edits with more precision than JLG ever did back then. Here, and in an absurdly joyous montage celebrating women riding bikes, Monkey Warfare taps the rapture of living free on the cheap in Toronto.
He also gives McKellar and Wright the opportunity to do their best sustained film work together. At one point, Susan asks Wright's character, Linda, if she wants to have a child with McKellar's Dan. "I had an abortion once," Wright deadpans. "That was close." But she shades the smartass line with love and regret, and a necessary hole opens up in the comedy.
Monkey Warfare is that rare Canadian film that takes politics seriously. Its characters look beyond their own scrubbed navels, trying to understand how to live in the world. But it's marred by a plot that never escapes the gender politics of Godard's own 60s work. In fact, the story where a guy chooses between an older and a younger woman doesn't even play in Hollywood romantic comedies any more.
But Harkema's main concern isn't the plot, which is ultimately pretty low-voltage. Instead, this is a character study of the kind of people who crowd Toronto's downtown scene but, weirdly, almost never show up in its movies.