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"I was born into a boring Presbyterian cult, which is the most bland and uninspiring religion. Catholicism is glamorous and baroque. I'm exploring the interaction of religious and sexual ecstasy, which are kind of interchangeable" - Bruce LaBruce

Badass Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce returns with his latest outre outing, Saint-Narcisse, the story of a young narcissist who discovers himself in more ways than one. In 1970s Quebec, Dominic (Felix-Antoine Duval) cares for his elderly grandmother and, in his spare time, obsesses over his good looks, taking polaroid selfies and flirting with his own reflection. He indulges in erotic daydreams while hanging out at the local laundrette but is haunted by visions of himself in a monastic robe and hood. Following his grandmother's death, he discovers a family secret that leads him on a bizarre sexual odyssey. Saint-Narcisse is a funny, often touching drama, which - like most of LaBruce's work - won't be to everyone's tastes, but stands as one of his most mature, restrained, and emotionally resonant works to date.

Dominic's journey initially leads him to his estranged birth mother, Beatrice (Tania Kontoyanni), an artist and witch who lives a bucolic life with her young companion Irene (Alexandra Petrachuk). After reconnecting with his mother, he discovers an order of monks at a nearby monastery, one of whom appears to be his exact double… Well, what is a narcissist to do?

LaBruce's film deals in heavy themes of religious guilt, trauma, and yes, incest, but it never loses sight of its characters as emotional individuals. The story unfolds slowly. We see Dominic coming to terms with these discoveries while supporting players, Beatrice, Irene, and Dominic's double, the monk Daniel, are each given time to provide a sense of their own personalities and histories before the story kicks into gear and we're confronted with a conspiracy and revenge plot.

As Dominic, Duval is something of a blank slate, his minimal acting style expressing by turns arrogance and confusion more than depth, but perhaps this is fitting given his character's self-obsession. In his dual role as Daniel, the actor has more to work with, the character's frustration and spiritual torment emerging during scenes in which the young monk flagellates himself while feverishly masturbating and ogling the models in a men's underwear catalogue. When the two men finally meet in a forest glade, camera trickery allows them to confront their desires in scenes which are far more tender and poignant (not to mention cathartic) than one might expect from the director of No Skin Off My Ass.

While LaBruce's early work was often characterised by its fearless approach to sex and nudity, ardent political satire as well as by low budgets and amateurish performances - often controversial in its depiction of queer sleaze - Saint-Narcisse presents a remarkably polished and handsome looking film. Yes, there is full-frontal male nudity, but it is dealt with matter-of-factly (a character takes an outdoor shower, men swim naked in a lake in a parody of baptism) and scenes depicting sex are more sincere and emotional than confrontational or aggressive. Since his 2013 film Gerontophilia, LaBruce's work has matured both in its themes and the director's approach to filmmaking generally, and his latest film is no exception, although I still wouldn't recommend watching this with mom - unless your mom is Beatrice.

Not everything works here. There is no getting around the fact that the film's momentum slows right down during long scenes between Daniel and the sadistic head monk, Father Andrew (Andreas Apergis), which feel as though they could have been trimmed while losing none of their impact. The script by LaBruce and co-writer Martin Girard is serviceable in terms of the story's construction but rarely inspired. Aside from a handful of genuine laugh-out-loud moments, there isn't much that sticks in the mind in terms of dialogue or performances. What the film does achieve is a certain mood, evocative of Fassbinder or Almodovar, by way of early De Palma. The mystery surrounding Dominic's family, the appearance of his identical twin, the sense of magic in the air that contributes to a feeling of melodrama entirely appropriate to the material. There is an air of barely concealed hysteria under the surface of the film which quietly bubbles away, until a satisfying final act.

With a score combining pop music with Gregorian chants, and lush cinematography and period details, this might be LaBruce's best-looking film (which seems apt) and probably his most accessible, at least for the uninitiated. The director's work has always been sexy and kinky, unapologetically punk in its attitude, and I'm happy to say that this remains the case here, only with a slightly more, dare I say it, conventional approach. It would make a fine choice to show friends unfamiliar with LaBruce who are interested in checking out his work.

It's a slow-burn film that rewards patient viewers with an open mind and a taste for unusual cinema. While his work is often arch and playful in its use of satire, there is a sense of authenticity to the message of the film here that's really rather endearing. Something akin to an erotic fairy tale for adults, it's a film of images and ideas that's mostly successful, and if you are not moved by the final moments of the film then you would need to be seriously lacking in both humour and heart - and Saint-Narcisse proves again that Bruce LaBruce has plenty of both.

Saint-Narcisse is currently screening at the Vancity Theatre in Vancouver and opens in Toronto on September 24.

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