One of the finest Canadian films of the year, Sophie Dupuis’ Solo is a calculated and deeply emotional look at a person who goes to psychologically damaging places to feel loved, admired, and wanted. A character study painted in fine detail. Solo understands yearning and desire, but also how those feelings can place people into abusive situations without them realizing. On one key level, Solo can be read as a cautionary tale about the nature of co-dependency, but closer examination finds a richer story about how generational traumas can shape who we are, for better and for worse.
Théodore Pellerin – collaborating with Dupuis for a third time, following Underground and Family First – plays Simon, a make-up artist who spends his nights performing in Montreal drag clubs and partying the night away with friends. He has a close bond with his seamstress sister, Maude (Alice Moreault), that was forged after his opera singer mother, Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux) left their family when they were young so she could pursue her career in Europe. This abandonment has clearly left Simon in a delicate emotional position, which is bad news when he starts following rapidly and madly in love with Olivier (Félix Maritaud), a new arrival to the drag club from France. Simon is more than willing to bend to Olivier’s every whim, which is just fine by the latter, who turns out to be a controlling, self-obsessed narcissist who thinks nothing is his fault and everyone else is to blame for his shortcomings and dalliances. Already fraying mentally, but determined to make his relationship with Olivier work, Simon’s situation worsens when his mother makes a brief return to Canada, and he desire to reconnect after years without much contact. It’s only then that Simon subconsciously starts to realize what Maude already suspects: that Felix has more in common with the young man’s mother than he realizes.
Dupuis’ direction is visually slick, but Solo is as composed and elegantly paced as a symphony. Dupuis shows a keen and empathetic way of showcasing how Simon feels at odds with the world around him. Moments in the clubs, around Simon’s family, and brief glimpses into the opulent world Claire inhabits are brimming with life, splendour, and energy. Whenever he’s on stage and in full dress or backstage with the girls, Simon is able to look like a commanding star, bursting with energy and creativity. But as soon as Simon pulls away and is left to his own devices, the sadness begins to creep in. The rush is gone. It’s as if someone has exhaled everything in their body to a point where there’s nothing left but the ringing in his ears and a head full of second guesses, misplaced regrets, and self-doubt. Solo places the viewer firmly in the footsteps of a character who so desperately fears abandonment and wants to be a people pleaser that they barely register how they are giving away of themself. It’s borderline tragic, and there’s always a sense throughout Solo that this isn’t going to end well for Simon, but it’s also infinitely relatable and recognizable behaviour.
The pairing of Pellerin and Maritaud as a pair of ill fitting lovers is an inspired choice, and Dupuis gives the actors plenty of space to establish characters that feel like distorted mirror images of each other. When Maritaud’s confident, headstrong, and more worldly Olivier chillingly exclaims with pride that Simon is “adapting to my aesthetic,” there’s a distinct sense of self-pride that fits perfectly with the character, and a lynchpin moment where the audience is finally able to see through this person’s charming facade and into the domineering cad that lies within.
That meshes perfectly with Pellerin’s expertly calibrated leading turn, which once again establishes the actor as one of the finest talents in Canadian cinema working today. Pellerin is perfectly expressive, and even when Simon is lying to himself about how psychologically abusive his situation has become, there isn’t a false note to be found. Pellerin also extends that similar chemistry to his scenes opposite Moreault and Cadieux, both of whom turn in noteworthy supporting performances. Pellerin’s performance is tremendous depicting a perfectly likeable person worthy of love who believes they don’t deserve better than what’s directly in front of them.
Solo builds to a deeply uncomfortable moment of realization for Simon, but it’s the kind of life altering moment that can hopefully spark a positive change. Throughout her film, writer-director Dupuis rides a razor’s edge between weaving a tragedy and slowly building arc of emotional redemption that’s hard fought and never easy. Dupuis has delicately crafted a story about a person who is both the architect of their own unhappiness, but also completely undeserving of the sadness that afflicts him. It’s a stunning work that places the viewer in the body and community of a person who might seem unfamiliar to some, but is universally relatable.
Solo is now playing exclusively in Toronto at Varsity Cinemas. It opens in additional cities throughout English language Canada starting on Friday, October 6, 2023.
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