L es Signes Vitaux, Quebec director Sophie Deraspe’s most recent film, is at once eerie and heartwarming. Taking the cold Quebec winter as its backdrop, the film lets the viewer feel two incongruous emotions, intertwined in one complex sensation. Wavering on the border of romance and drama, the film offers a new perspective on life, mortality, and the mysterious desire to help others in need.
Marie-Hélène Bellavance plays Simone, a young, independent biology student at Harvard who has come back home to deal with the aftermath of her grandmother’s unexpected death. Her grandmother’s passing forces Simone to enter a palliative care centre for the first time in her life. The fact that she was not present for her grandmother’s last moments sparks Simone’s interest in forging bonds with the people in the centre where her grandmother passed. Simone signs up to volunteer at this centre, and forms some of the most intimate, but short-lived, relationships she’s ever experienced.
The story of these relationships allows the movie to deal with themes of mortality and morality. While it is clear that Simone is an independent woman, she is obsessed with her own perceived weakness. A car accident in her youth resulted in the loss of her legs from the knee down, and categorized her as a disabled person. That Simone is able to help the centre’s patients, who rely on her for nearly all their needs, gives her a sense of authority and purpose that she has not experienced before. However, this overwhelming sense of gratification quickly takes a subconscious toll on Simone’s life, as she grows too close to the patients and ignores the rules of therapy. It even affects her personal life, as she gets more deeply involved in her already tumultuous relationship with her lover, Boris (Francis Ducharme).
Bellavance gives the film’s strongest performance, outshining her costar Ducharme with the sincerity and warmth she adds to Simone’s character. Nearly silent scenes and a recurring minimalist soundtrack only add to the film’s appeal. Clear, poignant shots of benign objects – for example, a snowblower – allow the viewer to identify, fully appreciate, and absorb the emotion the scene tries to convey. When the music returns, overpowering the speakers with its powerful, eerie trumpets, it further emphasizes that emotion, allowing the viewer to feel its full range and force.
Still, Deraspe avoids getting too wrapped up in the solemn moments, and the film also has a sincere sense of humour when needed. The amusing pangs don’t take away from the overall sensibility of the movie, but rather add another dimension to the already multi-layered plot. Les Signes Vitaux provides an interesting perspective on palliative centres and the people involved in them, with its raw depiction of death, the fragility of life, and the potentially dangerous feeling of power in the presence of the weak.
Les Signes Vitaux screens at Ex-centris (3536 St. Laurent) on October 10 at 8:45 p.m. and at 5:15 p.m. on October 12.