Quebec film “The Salesman” is an exceptional, slow-paced character piece

Gilbert Sicotte in The Salesman. Supplied

Quebec director Sébastien Pilote’s latest offering has all of the tempered patience and persistent charm of its titular protagonist who, like the film itself, skips the plaid bargain jacket in favour of a classier appeal.

Originally released under the title Le Vendeur, The Salesman follows Marcel Lévesque (Gilbert Sicotte), a 67-year-old car salesman in the midst of a 16-year-long “salesman of the month” streak at the ailing small-town Quebec dealership by which he is employed. The indefinite closure of a local pulp and paper mill - the town’s primary job provider - sets a backdrop of tangible despair and topical economic decline that pervades the atmosphere of the entire film.

While The Salesman undoubtedly possesses a satisfying neatness in terms of its progression of events, it’s clear that Pilote set out to create a more character-and-setting-driven work than one which relies most heavily upon plot development. Thanks to a fantastic performance by Sicotte and the film’s excellent cinematography, this decision serves The Salesman well.

Marcel is a character who’s easy to sympathize with, yet cringe-inducing to watch. Whether he’s showing his daughter and grandson (Nathalie Cavezzali and Jeremy Tessier, respectively) his 10,000 newly-ordered business cards (remember, the guy’s 67) or sitting in his office listening to voice recordings of the day’s (scarcely few) sales pitches as an improvement exercise, Monsieur Lévesque is nothing if not at least mildly delusional. In spite of his role’s many quirks, however, Sicotte manages to bring fully to life a character that should be merely a stereotype-laden caricature - yet somehow is anything but.

While The Salesman certainly invites some level of symbolic interpretation (everyone involved - especially Marcel - clings desperately to some manner of already-dead dream of the past), Pilote wisely opts not to force any specific modern cynicism down the viewer’s throat, as doing so would have distracted from the film’s best qualities.

It’s no wonder why The Salesman received the critical approval that it did along last year’s international film festival tour. It’s a touching, believable and ultimately tragic character piece that revels in the mundaneity of its setting just enough to draw smiles while still maintaining its decidedly dark atmosphere.  Excepting a couple of scenes in the film’s first two-thirds that are drawn out too long considering their overall importance, The Salesman is a film well worth seeing - for the patient.

Published in Volume 66, Number 27 of The Uniter (May 30, 2012)

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