Early on in Ryan McKenna’s (The First Winter) thoughtful, candy-colored tragicomedy, Sabali, Jeannette (Marie Brassard), our put upon protagonist, tells a customer at the hotel where she works that she has a bad heart. This omission is both physically and metaphorically accurate as McKenna takes delight in exploring this eccentric woman in her journey to make meaningful connections with others while searching for some comfort and ken, in the vibrant yet fickle world in which she lives.
Jeannette’s is an inexact world that’s both surreal and strange, and while she has difficulty finding love — her boyfriend friend, Bruno (Hugo Giroux), would rather openly beat off to porn than consummate their long-suffering relationship — Sabali provides a thoughtful, humorous and oddly original take on tenderness.
Brassard is brilliant as Jeannette, possessing both a world-weariness as well as an indomitable spirit, as she waits for a heart transplant and eyes and envies her pregnant co-workers. Inspired by their healthy libidos, even while in their last trimester, Jeannette boldly attempts a come-hither dance inducement, complete with veil, sultry singing, twerking, strip show, the works, to win back her blasé boyfriend, all to no avail.
Thankfully, for Jeanette, a heart donor suddenly arises, courtesy of a murdered Malain woman, and along with the new ticker she also gets some new found oomph, as well as, apparently, memories and recollections from the departed. Include an affair with a much younger co-worker (Francis LaHaye) and a fast new friendship with the teenage son (Youssef Camara) of the dead benefactor and Sabali still has surprises to spare.
Sabali is a remarkable film that, for all its small-scale circumspection still manages to overrun with opulent visual accomplishments, unique and indelible characters, brilliant casting, and an innovative script that gleefully smashes taboos with speed and solace.
McKenna, ably assisted by clever cinematographer Ian Lagarde, has the enterprise and pluck to, in the space of a single scene, suggest both the melodrama of Fassbinder’s Fear Eats the Soul and the anathema of John Water’s Polyester and still maintain a highly moralistic bottom line.
Constantly combining the comical and the touching, and clocking in at an economical 80 minutes, if there are any real shortcomings it’s that it all ends abrupt and too soon, but even so it still sparkles with inventiveness, mischief and a breezy exuberance. Sabali’s many moments of studied surrealism never ring false, situating the film, elegiacally, between subjective fantasy and objective certainty, and with heartening results.
Taste of Cinema Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)