Memory as a Confessional You Never Want to Leave

So the great affair is over but whoever would have guessed
It would leave us all so vacant and so deeply unimpressed
It’s like our visit to the moon or to that other star
I guess you go for nothing if you really wanna go that far

– Leonard Cohen, “Death of a Ladies’ Man” (1977)

Death of a Ladies’ Man (2020), starring Gabriel Byrne is a straightforward sentimental flick, set in Montreal, that moves mountains in the soul, if you’re into atmospheric pacing that includes lots of bulbless flashbacks and hazy hallucinations, brought on my brain tumors and one-night rumors. I’m a sad sap, who can never get enough of Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman, let that be dooley noted. But the film Death of most reminds me of is Local Hero (1983), a slight and pleasant film set in a Scottish village, featuring the magical finger licks of Mark Knopfler, and leading Burt Lancaster, in a reduced daft role, out to pasture in a dignified performance infused with feel-good humanity. Tip-a-cow for me, Charlie Chaplin.

There are plenty of quiet bar scenes in each film, to amplify the local camaraderie and the beer-teary sentimentality of oldies sitting in not-so-clean, not-so-well-lighted corners sadly mumbling Nada, Nada, and making me (I don’t know about you) thirsty for a pint of Tennent’s and a bowl of salty, pretzled stories to share with some new mates you don’t remember in the morning, even if she’s right there next to you in the bed.

Death of a Ladies’ Man represents a third panel of a triptych directed by Matt Bissonette, who has directed two other Leonard Cohen-themed films, Looking for Leonard (2002) and Passenger Side (2009). In addition to Byrne, the film features the talents of Jessica Paré, Brian Gleeson, Antoine Olivier Pilon, and Karelle Tremblay.  The latter, playing Josée, delivers a rich, ardent young intellectualism that makes you smell the rosy pungency of your liberal arts undergraduate years again, and, for a while in the film, gives you visions of the New Hellenic age ahead — all boats afloat! A future worth rescuing.

I watched  Local Hero over again, as a kind of research into my former emotions, and in preparation for the cinematic focus on human-connectedness that I saw on poignant display in Death of a Ladies’ Man. (Spoiler! It’s been a long time since this old peppersnippel teared-up at a tender movie scene like I did at one here.)  Hadn’t seen LH since the 80s. I wondered if I remembered LH right. I hadn’t quite. Frankly, the quirky quaint village Scots depicted in the film didn’t bring their A-game to my sentimental journey through memory lane, and even though they didn’t come across as evil as the spellbound retro twats of Wicker Man (1973), I’d met a fair few Scots live since 1983 — aye, lived in the Hebrides for a winter, freezing me ass off in a cottage heated by peat, a novice pig farmer braving blizzards to feed the oinkers on some windswept paddock leading to cliffs over the wildest sea, lost as Lear, and and and I can’t say that the reality of Scots touched me twee as much as the fantasial Scots of LH did. Let’s leave it at that. Nada.

Death of a Ladies’ Man is full of mythologized memories (what good are they if they don’t flatter?), broken connections, heartbreak and ennui, presumptions and takings-for-granted, and, in the end, the most secure-seeming relationships, secured by the ego-driven conceits of resilience over a long time, prove to be so fragile it takes your breath away in the sudden discovery.  Gabriel Byrne plays an excellent Samuel O’Shea, a literature professor, who’s made a life of sleeping with femme fatales (they all are, he finds), and who ends up settling for foamy, frothy bar maidens glad to give him head. He quotes Leonard Cohen’s poetry and music throughout the narrative, and the soundtrack is laden with some Cohen’s gold, which adds flourishes of lyricism, troubled moodiness and comments of the action. His tumor-driven hallucinations, mixed with memory and desire, help deliver his Wasteland’s tale. The film features seven Cohen songs, including “Bird on the Wire“, “Memories”, “Hallelujah“, “Why Don’t You Try”, “Heart with No Companion”, “The Lost Canadian (Un Canadien errant)” and “Did I Ever Love You”. “Memories” is especially effectively used.

There are no visions of Helen to keep his boat afloat in the end. He mis-reads his own disillusionment, itself a new illusion he celebrates with drink and hopped-up drivel, and he is not there to help the one woman who needs him most — his university-aged daughter– who, in her vibrancy and spirit and bilingualism, is potentially the soul of the story. When he ends up at an AA-type meeting in the end, he’s there to confess the tragedy he’s made of his humanity over a lifetime. I read somewhere recently that Byrne started out in his youth bound for the Catholic Calling — priesthood — before settling for atheism in his mature years. (It all depends on what your definition of Ism is, I believe.)  This is a meet and fit coincidence that complements the kind of addled mind O’Shea bears and wears, with tired eyes reflecting the troubles he’s seen — very much like you might imagine some old priest, single malt in hand (my shout), reflecting on sins he’s heard confessed over the years and the Judgement to come. For us all. Nada.

Death of a Ladies’ Man is quietly thought-provoking.  One considers the internetworked age we live in, the energy and purpose it seems to provide, the global democratization of opinion in which nobody’s opining, as a member of the commentariat, is any less valuable than the next guys, but is never really important anyway.  No real connections are made. It’s avatar to avatar.  Mask to mask. Persona to persona.  You get the feeling that if the plug were pulled on the whole Big sheBang, folks would come off the digital sugar badly and end up stuffed cold turkeys, mindless heaps of mindless ness.

Death of a Ladies’ Man helps the viewer see the fragility of our connections — how tenuous and beautiful they are when they are, if they exist at all — and the need to protect, with what’s left of our old frizzled hearts, the glimpses of reality we glean along the way to our inevitable doom at the hands of some Minotaur, totally fucking clewless. A glimpse that will only matter to the poet….Nada…Nada…Nada….Never More.

Death of a Ladies’ Man by Alan Bissett, the novel on which the film is based, is available for a read at Archive.Org.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.