When Canadian independent filmmaker John L'Ecuyer decided to write the script for his first feature, "Curtis's Charm," he did so out of creative and economic necessity. A second-year film student who was broke to the point of not being able to afford to make a film, he turned to writing. On a leap of faith, L'Ecuyer wrote a script adaptation of the Jim Carroll short story of the same title after reading it in The Paris Review. He made no inquiry about film rights, there was no production plan or talent attached, and he had no real idea how he was going to pay for it. L'Ecuyer simply did what he felt he had to do in order to keep his life on a productive, pro-active track, full of meaningful work and creative integrity, and wrote the thing. Now, only two short years after his initial moment of low-cost folly and a whole world of knowledge later, L'Ecuyer is being touted as one of Canada's hottest young filmmakers, and "Curtis's Charm" has done the unbelievable and found its way onto American screens.
Beginner's luck, you say? Well, the path by which L'Ecuyer arrived at the gates of filmmaking glory is a lucky one, of sorts. Like the two drug rehab pals who are the protagonists of his film, L'Ecuyer's life has been one full of chemical ups and downs. A dabbler in things dangerously addictive since the age of eleven, the French Canadian L'Ecuyer discovered heroin at seventeen and stayed with it for the next seven years, supporting his expensive and consuming habit as a thief and prostitute on the streets of Montreal. By his own admission, today L'Ecuyer is lucky to be alive, healthy, and heroin-free. After successfully completing a treatment program and turning his passionate tendencies to more productive social activitieswork at a needle-exchange program and an AIDS hospiceL'Ecuyer moved to Toronto and began his formal life as a storyteller, writing and publishing short fiction and experimenting with short films while in school at Ryerson. And although his experiences as an addict have served as the backbone for everything he has made, when viewed with a broader regard to the emotional and social complexity of chemical addiction, his work resonates with the themes of care and emotion, logic and illogic, individuality and community. As L'Ecuyer himself explains, "My work is about pain. And pain is universal. Everyone's gone through significant amounts of pain in their lives. Drug addiction is just my particular history. The experiences I've had in my life aren't just about drugs; they're about living."
True to form, "Curtis's Charm" is a story of compassion and empathy, of complex human interaction, disappointment and hope, connections and disconnections, chance and intent, stance and happenstance. And yet, despite the gravity of its themes, it is also a refreshingly droll take on the social complexities of self-destructive behavior. Moving beyond the all-too-familiar oversimplifications of the evils of drug abuse as well as cinema's tendency to voyeuristically glamorize and romanticize drugs, particularly heroin, the film shows its characters in all of their contradictory and delusional vivacity, humor, sadness, and depth. They are real and complete people, the world they inhabit is dingy and mediocre, and their disenchantment,understandable. With truly exceptional performances from Maurice Dean Wint as Curtis, the still-using half of the duo, and Callum Keith Rennie as Jim, now sober but a bit worse for the wear, the film quietly, hauntingly conveys the sense of two souls forever and inexorably intertwined by a common experience and a shared past.
Convinced that his mother-in-law is a high-voodoo priestess secretly stalking him in the form of a squirrel and that his wife is stealing his money disguised as a sneaky house mouse, Curtis, desperate and clearly cranked-up, turns to Jim for a solution. Jim is torn between a gnawing sense of personal responsibility to his old friend and the knowledge that Curtis is well beyond responding to any help that he can provide. Opting for the former, Jim stands by his friend in need, regardless of its effectiveness. The exchanges between the two are the true drama of the film. Their gentle, congenial back-and-forths are as much the result of L'Ecuyer's fine scripting and direction as the actors' well-tuned abilities to understand the complementary nature of their characters. Despite their differences and divergent post-rehab lives, Curtis and Jim are like an old, worn favorite article of clothingthey fit each other comfortingly well. At its heart, "Curtis's Charm" is about the power and necessity of friendship and an individual's responsibility to his fellow man.
As in his previous films (shorts "UseOnceAndDestroy" and "Low Life"), L'Ecuyer's aesthetic sensibility and cinematic voice are derived from a clear understanding of the meditative and hallucinatory aspects of cinema. Rhythmic and transcendent, "Curtis's Charm" begins with a hypnotic collage of urban restlessness and optically reprinted footage from Maya Deren's "Divine Horsemen," a 1950s documentary about voodoo in Haiti. On the sound track we hear the doleful beat of an urban hip-hop ballad by My Brilliant Beast, and we realize that the story we are about to enter houses multiple physical and emotional dislocations. Not entirely unlike a drug-induced state of suspended and distanced belief, this opening demarcates L'Ecuyer's territory as that of the outsider, the marginalized. This is, in fact, his perspective, his voice, his point of observation. And, with a keen eye and ear for detail, coupled with an edgy sense of composition, he guides us to the introduction of Jim, the film's de-facto narrator.
In his 1994 award-winning experimental short, "UseOnceAndDestroy," L'Ecuyer uses a similar strategy of aural and visual dislocation to establish the frenetic nature of the world that is about to unfold. A series of vignette-like, nonfiction-derived short stories, "UseOnce" comes across as a jittery foray into a pumped-up world of desperation and chemical need, a world filled with fleshy, red-bearded dealers, sickly young dancing girls who are rapidly becoming old women, and boys who steal cars because they like to go fast, fast, fast. Like its subjects, the pace of "UseOnce" is relentlessly visceral. Images of blood and excrement flash by on screen as descriptions of an aching longing for just one more fix fill our ears. But L'Ecuyer's intention is not merely to shock, but rather to remind the viewer of the immediacy of the issues at hand. As L'Ecuyer puts it, "Some people think my films glamorize drug use, but that's not my intention at all. Heroin is incredibly and obviously self-destructive and I've had too many people in my life--brilliant minds, great people, lovely peoplejust die or end up in prison because of drugs. There's no romance or glamour in being a heroin addict."
L'Ecuyer's luck and his street smarts have not only kept him alive but have also fueled the beginnings of a tremendously promising career as a writer and filmmaker. The irony of his abusive past and his potentially rosy future is not lost on him: "My life for the last fifteen years has been an exciting and bizarre ride, really a very strange experience. Film is very much a continuation of all of my strange criminal and drug-related experiences. Now I'm making a television documentary about my life on the streets, and it's all kinda bullshit. But it's very cool, too. But it's not why I started making films. I just like to work, and I love films. And at some point in my life I want to make a really great film." Perhaps his next feature film, an adaptation of Richard Ford's Ultimate Good Luck, will be the one. And although it is not about addiction per se, a large part of its sensibility will undoubtedly come from the indelible experiences of L'Ecuyer's fifteen years as a social outcast as well as his inherent ability to tell a story straight from his heart.
All photgraphs by Michael Gibson for Alliance