By Yun-hua Chen.
Probing deep into the possibilities of filmmaking, Simon Lavoie invites his audience into a trance-like journey….”
Slamdance Film Festival, the premiere festival with the mission of “by filmmakers, for filmmakers”, is unique in terms of its democratic programming and precise policy to support independent filmmaking; it focuses on competition films of directorial debuts with budgets of less than $1 million USD and without US distribution. In 2021, the festival has to cancel its retreat and drive-in screenings and goes entirely virtual. The online festival opens with the post-apocalyptic No Trace from Canadian director and screenwriter Simon Lavoie.
The Québécois film No Trace is a fitting choice for the opening as we still navigate through the second year of the pandemic and cannot help but wonder what our near future would look like. The world that Simon Lavoie creates is in media res of an undistinguishable Quebec French-speaking forest in a troubled time. We do not know what happens to the world, but it seems like a deserted world inhabited by few survivors. Armed troupes are stationed at the border and demand bribes for border-crossing; guerilla fighters hide in the forest; food is scarce, and cigarettes are the new currency; still-standing cottages are abandoned and collapsing.
The director of photography Simran Dewan’s black and white infrared cinematography set on the Red Epic M Monochrome camera only allows infrared rays to pass through, which makes skin looks semi-transparent, and leaves snow white. The filtered world thus adds an eerie and dreamlike layer to the already hostile-looking vast forest; its lurking danger is experienced through the perspective of a woman trafficker of an indeterminate age, called “N” by the director in his statement. She drives her motor-driven handcar along the railroads all alone, merely accompanied by rhythmic sounds of metal and engine. In this bleak dystopia, she is a seasoned smuggler and has mastered the game of survival. Yet, when, as a result of sympathy, she hides a pious young woman and her infant across border to safety, an inexplicable connection is formed and the jaded woman’s well-guarded defense against the world crumbles down.
At first glance, No Trace seems inspired by Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979) meeting Marhul’s The Painted Bird and Bergman’s Persona (1966), with well-blended elements of mesmerizing long takes, a weathered face on a handcar along the one-way train track, a strong sense of alienation, cruelty between human beings, deliberately ambiguous relationship between two women, and the desolate set-up of a meditative science fiction. It does, however, goes in a different direction and creates a new dimension of dreaminess and blurred consciousness. Its female perspective and the characterization of these two women with diverging belief systems is also refreshing; the smuggler and the smuggled, the protector and the protected, and the believer and non-believer are not only clashing with each other, but are also engaged in approaching, touching, sounding out, mingling and caring.
Hidden in Lavoie’s deep nature immersion are some philosophical questions about humanity. Can we live a life without affection? Does living simply mean surviving? Can people care for one another in a selfless way?”
At times, the 2.35: 1 aspect ratio of a wide screen shrinks into an almost completely square-shaped ¾ screen with the 1.33: 1 aspect ratio surrounded by blackness, using spherical lens. When the 3/4 screen is used, N’s surroundings are cut off from the film image, and the focus is centered on the characters’ facial expression, mental activities or a body part like N’s foot on the brake of her handcar. The alternation between two screen ratios switches between whole and parts, general overview and specific focus, and the inner and outer worlds of N, in a way foretelling the indiscernibility between the real and the illusion later on.
Patrice LeBlanc’s contemplative and ambient sound design captures the nuanced natural sounds of wind and leaves, as well as man-made sounds of vehicles, engines and metals. Together with Jean L’appeau’s electro acoustic music, No Trace’s soundscape is minimalist yet accurate in its portrayal of a mysterious but very relatable human condition.
Probing deep into the possibilities of filmmaking, Simon Lavoie invites his audience into a trance-like journey along with N. There are very few dialogues and N is taciturn, but the stunning yet scary nature, beautifully filmed in diverse camera shot sizes, tells a story of its own through its soft murmur. Hidden in Lavoie’s deep nature immersion are some philosophical questions about humanity. Can we live a life without affection? Does living simply mean surviving? Can people care for one another in a selfless way? Is a world of everyone against everyone worth living at all? How would sexuality and love look like while one struggles to survive? Does what we see is really what we get?
Yun-hua Chen is an independent film scholar who contributes regularly to Film International, Exberliner, the website of Goethe Institut, as well as other academic journals. Her monograph on mosaic space and mosaic auteurs is funded by Geschwister Boehringer Ingelheim Stiftung für Geisteswissenschaften and was published by Neofelis Verlag in 2016.