Death of a Ladies’ Man describes itself as “inspired by” the songs of Leonard Cohen. What that means seems to be whatever writer/director Matt Bissonnette wants it to mean at any given time. It is a tribute of sorts, filled with Leonard Cohen’s music, lyrics, poetry, and ideas, and with references to him, direct or oblique; but it is a confusing tribute, all about Leonard Cohen, and at the same time a story where he is never central, merely part of the scenery, or the invisible being who sets the mood. It is a strangely fascinating film to watch, but a difficult one to describe correctly.
The odd, half reality, half fantasy storyline deals with the final months of Samuel O’Shea, played with intensity and pathos by Gabriel Byrne. Sam is an Irish-Canadian professor of literature and the titular ladies’ man, who is, from the outset, very carefully identified as not a representation of Leonard Cohen. He is a womaniser and heavy drinker, deeply cynical but with idealistic qualities as well. He lives and works in Quebec, Cohen’s birthplace. The brief opening scene follows Sam as he enters his home to find his wife in bed with another man, angrily confronts them, and agrees to a divorce before leaving again. This introduces us to both Sam and his chaotic and challenging family life, as well as his unstable, compulsive history with women.
Sam, as it turns out, has an inoperable brain tumour, and this is the explanation offered for the rather otherworldly events that follow. He begins to have hallucinations, often fantastic and bizarre, but also perfectly realistic and filled with significant metaphorical meaning. One of these illusions, which recurs throughout the film, is Sam’s vision of his own late father, Ben O’Shea, appearing to talk to him, explain reality to him, and act as a literal spirit guide through the difficult times Sam is enduring. He also provides the audience with insights into Sam’s past, his weaknesses, and his regrets. The ostensible ghost of his father, played by Brian Gleeson, appears as the father of Sam’s childhood, many years younger than Sam himself.
The tale of Sam’s final days falls into several categories. Superficially, it is about a man facing his own mortality and dealing with the inability to trust his own senses. Thanks to the ostensibly imaginary presence of his deceased father, it is partly a ghost story. It is also about the dissolution of a family and its eventual restoration; and, as Sam comes to face his failings and try to become sober and make amends, a story of personal redemption. Most strikingly, it is a sort of free-flowing magical reality tale that uses outrageous hallucinations to reveal Sam’s back story, his thoughts and feelings, and hidden realities. Finally, flowing through all the other aspects of the film, it is a tribute to Leonard Cohen’s music and poetry, which turns up in one form or another in almost every scene.
To begin with, the film is divided into three main parts, announced on screen, each named for a Leonard Cohen song. Part one, Like a Worm on a Hook: In Which A Man Learns His Fate, establishes Sam’s difficult relations with his ex-wife and his beloved adult son and daughter; and also reveals his terminal illness, his excessive drinking, and his disastrous tendency to trifle with women. He experiences his first elaborate hallucination after meeting with his son: watching the young man play hockey, the singing of the national anthem is replaced, in his vision, by a woman singing Cohen’s Bird On A Wire, while the hockey players perform a graceful, elaborate ice ballet to the music, as Sam watches in amazement. His ghostly father makes his first appearance, and their discussion urges Sam to begin serious self-reflection.
Sam’s frequent hallucinations are, for the most part, vaguely symbolic but rather random: he finds himself sitting next to Frankenstein’s monster in a bar; a waitress appears to have the head of a tiger. The Leonard Cohen input continues to occur at key moments, typically in one of Sam’s hallucinations, but also turning up in ‘real’ moments, through a book laid on a table, a line borrowed from one of Cohen’s poems, even a passing discussion of one of his novels. Sometimes the references appear elaborately staged: as Sam teaches, a student in his class unexpectedly rises to recite Cohen’s poem, The Music Crept By Us, while the rest of the class provide an accompanying visual display. All of the hallucinatory material is carefully presented with a distinctly real appearance but a slightly frightening, magical look as well, often impossible for either Sam or the viewer to distinguish between the real and the imaginary except by context, adding a tinge of mystery and personal horror.
In part two: There Is A Crack In Everything (referring to lyrics from Leonard Cohen’s song, ‘Anthem’: “There is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in”), Sam attempts to escape his fate by retracing familiar paths and means of escape, but his hallucinations become not only more meaningful, but more difficult to distinguish from reality, until the real and the imaginary blend together completely, bringing him to a crisis, and leading to part three: Let Us Sing Another Song, Boys, This One Has Grown Old and Bitter. In an act that narrowly escapes becoming a parody of hopeful emotions, Sam abandons the bitterness he has clung to and works to both improve himself and regain his family’s trust. His recovery and newfound hope is expressed in typically bizarre fantasy scenes, such as a grotesque but oddly touching hallucination of a group dance at an AA meeting. Sam’s reality and his hallucinations become weirdly but charmingly mingled and reconciled, in parallel to Sam’s various forms of reconciliation: to his family primarily, but also to his past and his own mortality. His ghostly guide appears to help, bringing the film to a purposely cryptic ending.
Death of a Ladies’ Man is a mixed bag. Gabriel Byrne is at his very best as the grim, poetic, complicated, self-sabotaging lead character, and the ensemble cast is excellent. The approach the film takes, a cross between magical reality and dreamscape, is well done but constantly confusing, and the storyline is often choppy and unclear, as well as veering occasionally from a dark, caustic mood to an extremely sentimental one.
Regardless of any flaws, for any Leonard Cohen fan, the film is a must.
Director Matt Bissonnette is an ardent fan of Cohen’s work, something that comes across throughout. It is a peculiar kind of tribute, as mentioned above, in which Cohen and his writing seem to be constantly mentioned, read aloud, or hinted at. What is intriguing is the way Cohen’s music and poetry is so often merely felt, in a mood, a statement, or an interaction, without directly quoting, copying, or referencing. Characters appear who are not inventions of Leonard Cohen, but somehow have the feel of something out of one of his poems. This includes the central character. The film is sadly imperfect, but such a sincere and genuinely original effort, and so absorbing in spite of itself, I have to recommend it, especially to those who enjoy the late Leonard Cohen’s work.
Imperfections, after all, are how the light gets in.