Register Thursday | February 9 | 2023
Ghost Stories From Charlotte Le Bon's Falcon Lake.  

Ghost Stories

Justine Smith reviews new films by Lina Rodríguez and Charlotte Le Bon.

“Do you know how to read the future in a chamomile tea?” Aurora asks her date. Swirling the remnants of her drink, she looks down at the cup, then up at her companion. They sit in a cafe, framed in profile. “The future says we are going to … there’s something shaky happening soon.” She smiles while rattling the cup in her hand. “Is that a good thing or …?” her date asks. Dreamily, she answers, “I think good, definitely.”

Her English isn’t precise and her insinuation is a bit unclear. Is she suggesting a sexual encounter or something more innocent? Her date seems nervous, afraid to break the spell of their shared intimacy by asking direct questions. For him, it’s better to live in uncertainty by treating their relationship delicately rather than risk reopening old wounds.

Lina Rodríguez’s So Much Tenderness follows Aurora (Noëlle Schönwald), a Colombian environmental lawyer, as she flees her homeland in search of refugee status in Canada. Rodríguez was born in Bogotá, Colombia, but she’s based in Toronto, and her films often deal with dislocation and longing, a person’s search for a place to call home. After a premiere at TIFF, the film will play in Canadian theatres in early 2023.

So Much Tenderness begins with close-up shots of Aurora’s murdered husband: his shoulder, his back, his face. By the time we meet Aurora, she’s in the States, close to the Canadian border. A young woman picks her up in a car in dim light, marking a new step in her undocumented journey north. After she arrives in Toronto, she goes through a long interview process with Canadian immigration officials, during which she shares the story of her escape from Colombia.

Most of the film takes place six years later, after she’s settled in Toronto. She’s learned English, is working in a daycare, and is teaching Spanish to adults. She lives with her daughter, Lucía (Natalia Aranguren), who is in her early twenties. While Aurora has adjusted to her new life in many ways, she can’t fully escape her past. She still has ties to Colombia and, in time, a new relationship will unearth old sensations and desires. In this way, Rodríguez’s film explores how the past haunts the present.

Director Charlotte Le Bon’s feature debut Falcon Lake is another kind of ghost story. Thirteen-year-old Bastien (Joseph Engel) is vacationing at a cabin in rural Quebec with his family. Almost immediately, Bastien falls for the mysterious and slightly older Chloé (Sara Montpetit), who tells him about the ghosts living in the lake. The coming-of-age film builds itself around their budding romance and the delicate nature of early love in its awkward vulnerability. After a world premiere at Cannes Film Festival, Falcon Lake was released in theatres in Canada in October 2022.

Both Rodríguez’s and Le Bon’s films deal in tenderness, a word that implies a certain kind of fragility, a proclivity toward pain and discomfort. To be tender toward someone requires an awareness of their weakness and mortality. In some ways, it is the opposite of a love that covets and idolizes; it’s an affection born out of a shared intimacy and an understanding of our need for recognition and acceptance. In a relationship, tenderness renders the hidden, invisible parts of ourselves clear—it unearths our ghosts.

The overwhelming loss central to So Much Tenderness lends an unreality to Aurora’s and Lucía’s lives. Both secretly harbour the feeling that their husband and father may still be alive in Colombia. It’s impossible, but far away from their homeland, they can at least imagine it to be true. This belief means that their days are filled with phantoms. The film features long, unbroken shots and naturalistic performances, occasionally interrupted by memories of Aurora’s husband lit with an ethereal white light.

When Lucía first appears on screen, she’s working in a grocery store with a friend. A man goes up to the cash to pay, and we see him only from the back, his hair pulled up into a bun. For a brief moment, even the audience imagines that he might be the father figure we saw in the film’s opening frames. Though she’s flooded with emotion, Lucía reacts with a steely numbness. She can describe the feelings she’s experiencing to her friend, but is unable to feel comforted by the warmth and kindness he offers in return.

As her daughter struggles to get close to people, Aurora has fulfilling jobs and friendships and has struck up a romance with a younger man, Alexander (Sebastian Kowollik). The new relationship is fresh and attentive. Love seems ready to bloom again for Aurora. Then, one day, on the Toronto subway, she sees another ghost—this one flesh and blood. It’s her cousin, who is also a suspect in her husband’s murder. She follows him to the small Latin American cafe where he works. His presence in her new city creates a rift that will lead her to act drastically and unearth long-buried grief.

So Much Tenderness mostly unfolds around extended conversations about the nature of love and desire, revealing the effects of trauma on the protagonists’ capacity for love—or at least how they behave in the face of it. On a first date, Lucía is aloof and distant. She presents a hard exterior that her new love interest finds difficult to penetrate. Later, as her friends share insecurities about their bodies and sex, she insists that she has none of those problems. For Lucía, any vulnerability or doubt needs to be squashed. Rather than face her feelings over her father’s death, she sidesteps them.

Aurora, on the other hand, seems comfortable feeling her way through life. She’s an engaged teacher, caring and open with her students. She laughs and flirts at parties with friends, teasing her friend’s boyfriend about his Jesus-like appearance. The contrast between mother and daughter initially feels stark. It’s as if the mother has come to terms with her past while the daughter still struggles.

The film’s structure and visual style challenge this reading, though. Early in the film, the day after she arrives in Canada, we learn from Aurora’s extensive interviews with immigration officers that she escaped Colombia alone, initially leaving her daughter behind. Does Lucía harbour resentment over this decision? Or perhaps each woman hides her pain differently. Aurora smiles and dodges reality, while Lucía tries and fails to avoid stewing in the enormous feelings of young adulthood.

From Lina Rodríguez's So Much Tenderness

Through burgeoning love affairs, both women navigate otherwise concealed parts of themselves—and the uncertainty of loving again. While on the surface it might seem like Aurora is handling the transition better, she remains paranoid and guarded, at least in how she handles the appearance of her cousin in Toronto. She keeps his resurgence secret until the end of the film.

Having already lost so much, both mother and daughter fear opening themselves up because of the risk of getting hurt again. Accepting tenderness would mean accepting the death of a father and husband, which both women seem unable to do. How do you deal with that kind of loss? On a date, Aurora talks about the nature of love and how some scientists say it’s only chemical, just raging hormones. She explains that she’s been in a relationship that lasted over twenty years, but she can’t bear to tell her date why that love affair ended abruptly.

Aurora has readied herself to truly connect with others again. She may not know how anymore, but she wants to try. Lucía, however, remains too wounded to move on and can’t let her mother move on either. As if repulsed by her mother’s perceived weakness and yearning, Lucía lashes out at Aurora, accusing her of causing her father’s death. It’s a cathartic moment that could unravel their new life, but instead brings the women closer. As the film ends, they face further loss and new ideas about the blurred lines between waking and dreaming life. The spectral presence of the father walks through their house one last time, no longer a memory from a far-off land.

In Falcon Lake, the nature of tenderness is rooted in the transition from childhood to adolescence, as two families reunite at a lakeside cabin after many years spent apart. The last time they gathered there, Chloé was still a preteen, ten or eleven, according to her mother. Now she’s sixteen, and, in the eyes of her mother, an obstinate and stubborn teen. The groundwork for discovery and new experiences, like getting drunk or a first kiss, doesn’t need much setup because the film features all the hallmarks of a coming-of-age film and viewers expect the tropes of the genre. Suddenly, the world changes, not through some external force, but an internal one.

The film’s location, shot on textured 16 mm, lends an ethereal quality. The lake glitters with golden sunshine, as if the light itself were obscured by dust. The water has a wild atmosphere. Despite the presence of vacationers and speedboats, it seems strangely abandoned, an eerie and ageless environment that makes the adolescent protagonists seem smaller and younger than they are. Bastien’s apparent fear of the water makes sense, as the inky waters are more foreboding than inviting. Crucially, though, the lure of possible closeness with Chloé allows Bastien to push aside his worries about both danger and pain.

The growing fondness between Chloé and Bastien underlies the tenderness inherent to transformation and the first real awareness of death and mortality. The biological changes of puberty also highlight a spiritual change, where a chasm seems to form between body and mind. As Chloé obsesses over the ghosts of children in the lake, she enlists Bastien to help her with an unstructured photography project about death. She seems unsatisfied with the results, telling him, “I don’t look dead enough.”

Pain quickly becomes a key part of the interactions between Chloé and Bastien, as Bastien explains that it’s impossible to bite yourself hard enough to bleed. Sitting on a grassy knoll, the teens practice biting down on the space between their index fingers and thumbs. Throughout the film, this action becomes a secret code for their intimacy. By the final act, they’ve bored into their flesh so often that their hands are bruised with teeth marks. This ritualistic act becomes emblematic of the teens’ shared relationship with tenderness and pain. The deeper they cut into their skin, the closer they become. What happens if the skin breaks? Will they become closer, or will the pain become overwhelming and unsustainable?

In their first significant act of physical touch, Chloé bathes the inebriated Bastien. He had drunk too much wine and had been bent over the toilet. Still partly clothed, he crawls into the bathtub, and she crawls in after him. They play like children as she puts soap in his hair and shapes it into a cowlick. The tenderness Chloé offers Bastien at this moment speaks to how tenderness is often extended to children, largely because of their physical vulnerability and inability to care for themselves. Yet, the mood changes as she turns away from him to wash her hair. He watches her unobstructed, looking at the nape of her neck and the creeping way wet hair clings to the skin. The rest of the scene unfolds wordlessly, rife with anticipation, as the conditions of affection shift from childhood into adolescence.

As Falcon Lake progresses, the film illustrates how much easier it is to offer tenderness to others than to ourselves, especially as Chloé loses herself increasingly to fantasy, imagining ever more elaborate stories of children drowning in the lake and the ghosts that still haunt the dark waters. Still on the cusp of adolescence, Bastien lacks the experience to understand the depth of Chloé’s emotional suffering as she tries to find her place in the world.

As Chloé struggles to connect with those around her, she feels an increased sense of alienation. Her attempts to open up and be vulnerable become overwhelming. Bastien, though in love with her, lacks the maturity to provide Chloé with the support she needs. The older boys by the lake are careless with her feelings and her parents fail to see her suffering. Chloé, ultimately, just wants to be seen and loved for who she is.

The vulnerability at the heart of both So Much Tenderness and Falcon Lake reflects the finite experience of our bodies and how the acute awareness of our mortality can be a horrific, though humbling, experience. The way a single thread of desire can open up new opportunities feels as frightening as it does exciting. 

Yet these films also remind us that the qualities of enduring love go beyond passion, beyond even empathy. Long-lasting, trusting love requires gentleness, carefulness. It requires holding space for the totality of another person’s being and experience, whatever it may be. It requires a softness, a willingness to go deeper. More than just a need to be touched, these films show how we desire to be seen, acknowledged and wanted in return. ⁂

Justine Smith is a writer and film programmer based in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). She is the screen editor for Cult MTL, and her work has also appeared in Hyperallergic, Little White Lies and POV Magazine.