Death of a Ladies Man
The more familiar you are with the novelist, poet, songwriter and singer Leonard Cohen (1934 – 2016), the more meaning you can extract from Death of a Ladies Man (2020). Neither an autobiography nor homage, it is infused with the ghosts of Cohen’s personality, philosophy, music, life, and every inch of its filmic space is filled by him.
The film’s opening scene is a snapshot of the chaotic life of a self-absorbed alcoholic poetry professor who discovers his much younger wife in bed with a much younger man. An Irish lothario, Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne) demands a divorce that is happily agreed to by yet another of his failed relationships; thus begins the unravelling of the fabric of his life. He questions what kind of father he has been for his son who suddenly outs as gay, and for his daughter who has a serious drug problem. His grip on reality slips as he experiences bizarre hallucinations, like watching a hockey game that turns into ice ballet; seeing a muscled-up waitress with a tiger’s head; having drinks with Frankenstein’s monster; and his regular conversations with his long-dead father (Brian Gleeson). We see all through Samuel’s eyes, and reality is in the eyes of the beholder.
A medical diagnosis turns into a death sentence, as an inoperable brain tumour means he has only a few months left. Confronted by mortality, he returns to his cottage on the west coast of Ireland to reflect on his life and write the book he always planned. A chance encounter with young Charlotte (Jessica Pare) turns into a whirlwind romance, or so it appears. In what must be the film’s most audacious and expressive scene, a musical ensemble that includes a Buddhist monk and the Grim Reaper materialise to serenade the couple with the Cohen ballad Why Don’t You Try as they stroll along a beautiful shoreline and clifftop, as lovers have done forever.
While the narrative destination is preordained, it is the twists and turns of getting there that make this film unique. Samuel’s confrontation with the meaning of life and his quest for redemption are heightened by hallucinatory haze and the melancholic music of seven seminal Cohen songs that form the film’s soundtrack. Much of what we think we see is not real yet is a realistic expression of the universal human experience. This evocative and original film can move you unexpectedly while its shockingly ironic finale can leave you stunned. It’s not without flaws, but as Cohen would say:
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in
Director: Matt Bissonnette
Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Brian Gleeson, Jessica Pare