‘Oh, Canada’ Review: Paul Schrader Separates the Art From the Artist in Prismatic Portrait of a Dying Director

Straying from the hotheaded “Taxi Driver” style that has dominated much of his career, Paul Schrader pays ruminative and respectful tribute to his late friend, novelist Russell Banks, who gave the writer-director the raw material for one of his best films, “Affliction” — and now, for one of his best films in years. Adapted from Banks’ “Foregone” (and given the title the author told Schrader he wanted for the book), “Oh, Canada” presents a dying artist’s final testimony as a multifaceted film-within-a-film, honoring Banks while also revealing so many of Schrader’s own thoughts on mortality.

Fighting a long, painful bout with cancer (“not the good kind,” apparently, as if such a thing exists), documentary filmmaker Leonard Fife has scores of admirers and a shelf full of awards. As the movie opens, two former students, Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Diana (Victoria Hill), arrive at their mentor’s Montreal home and proceed to set up a unique camera rig. It’s a system Leonard supposedly invented — based on Errol Morris’ “Interrotron” — which allows the subject to stare straight into the lens and see the interviewer’s face reflected there.

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“I made a career out of getting people to tell me the truth. Now it’s my turn,” sighs Leonard (played by Richard Gere in the present and Jacob Elordi when the character is half a century younger and half a foot taller). Gere, who starred in Schrader’s “American Gigolo” at the height of his good looks, first appears with his face lined and hair thinned, as if the character might die any minute. His much-younger wife Emma (Uma Thurman) fears he might.

As Leonard sits for the camera, he shows zero interest in his legacy — the thing that drives so many young artists. He’s agreed to do this interview for Emma’s benefit, demanding that she be in the room (peripheral at first, Thurman proves every bit as strong as the role requires). In theory, Malcolm will ask the questions, but in practice, Leonard directs the shoot, responding for his wife’s benefit — and therein lies the soul of this profound if slightly scattered film.

Leonard Fife could easily go to his grave allowing the world to see him as a hero — an “artiste engagé,” as Malcolm flatteringly puts it — but instead he wants to clear the record (and his conscience). As Leonard speaks, the film’s nearly square Academy ratio instantly widens, and in struts Elordi as longish-haired younger Leonard. He doesn’t really look like Gere, but that’s immaterial, as Schrader slyly alternates between the two actors, no matter what age the character might be.

What do these widescreen vignettes represent: the truth? Leonard’s memories? Or are they a more literal representation of what he shares with the cameras, which might be distorted or outright invented, considering his condition? The answer doesn’t really matter as Schrader builds a mosaic of Leonard’s life, cutting back to the aged director at times, as he stubbornly insists on being honest with them, with himself, with us.

Playing out like omniscient (if potentially unreliable) B-roll, the flashbacks come in a bit of a jumble. Leonard starts by talking about a moment in his second marriage when he and his pregnant wife Alicia (Kristine Froseth) were about to buy a house in Vermont. Days before Leonard was supposed to deliver the down payment, his wealthy father-in-law made a proposition to run the family business. At that point, Leonard dreamed of being a novelist. He was not one to be tied down, as another, earlier series of flashbacks (these in black and white) depict.

Leonard’s entire reputation has been founded on the myth that he fled the United States for Canada, as either a draft dodger or a conscientious objector. The truth isn’t quite so romantic — in fact, it’s downright anti-romantic, as Leonard describes a lifelong pattern of walking out on women. (At one point, he admits to seducing Diana.) In addition to Leonard’s narration, “Oh, Canada” privileges the voice of his abandoned son, Cornel (Zach Shaffer), whom he neglected to mention to Emma during their more-than-30-year marriage.

Feeling death looming, Leonard needs to come clean. He likens the process of doing this interview to praying (“Whether or not you believe in God, you don’t lie when you pray,” he says), but it’s more of a confession, and a somewhat confused one at that, given the film’s prismatic and audaciously nonlinear structure. It probably doesn’t help that Gere is constantly popping up in scenes set in the ’60s. Now in his 70s — and notoriously outspoken on social media — Schrader has been quite public about his personal health issues. With this film, he confronts the ugly and seemingly unjust truth of dying.

Once driven by his loins, Leonard does his interview with a urostomy bag hanging by his side. When the young female intern leans in to attach his mic, Leonard takes a deep whiff (classier than the cliché where he might look down her blouse). How difficult it must have been for this incorrigible womanizer to get older, how necessary to his appetites that false legend surely was. Now, he has no need to sustain it. From Emma, he seeks not forgiveness but greater intimacy.

Easily the least sensationalist entry in Schrader’s oeuvre, “Oh, Canada” contains absolutely no violence. It’s not without death, obviously, but the strategy that Schrader has so often used of letting things escalate to an explosive finale (it’s the only flaw in his otherwise perfect “First Reformed”) won’t fly here. This film works better going out on a whimper. It’s also bolstered nicely by a series of mellow songs from Phosphorescent (aka Matthew Houck).

This is ultimately Banks’ story, though one can feel Schrader weaving his own ideas into Leonard’s worldview, as America’s most eschatological living director shares insights into this cultural moment, when countless artists have been called out for bad behavior. How many have escaped this moral reckoning? Here, Leonard brings that scrutiny upon himself, exposing his shortcomings in a way that, should Malcolm’s movie ever come out, would surely undermine his reputation, to which Schrader asks: Is the role of art to be respectable? Can it really ever be honest?

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