Alone within the precise, fixed frame of Curling’s opening shot, her face sprayed with freckles, her gaze almost blank yet somehow touching, Julyvonne (Philomène Bilodeau) is visiting the optometrist. There’s something wrong with her eyes, she’s told, or hasn’t she noticed? She hasn’t. Julyvonne’s 12 years old, home-schooled, and her interaction with the world beyond the rural Quebec bungalow she shares with her father, Jean-Francois (Emmanuel Bilodeau), has been minimal. But she leaves the optometrist’s with her first pair of glasses, and what follows, at least within her share of Curling, is a story about seeing things for the first time. Some of these things may not be real. Maybe.
Jean-Francois is a shy, fearful man with a weathered, angular face. He has two jobs: he works maintenance at a bowling alley and cleans rooms at a motel. Kennedy (Roc LaFortune, a real card), his superior at the bowling alley, calls Jean-Francois “Moustache,” perhaps because the broom-thicket of hair below Jean-Francois’ hooked nose seems to take up so much of his face, perhaps because Jean-Francois’ reserve is so unnerving that the boss, a fan of obscure euphemisms is any case, just needs something to endow his only employee with a little character. At one point in Curling, after making a chilling discovery one night on a desolate road, Jean-Francois does something in secret that would barely seem pardonable in a child, much less a 40ish single father. Yet I think we’re inclined to believe the best in him because he’s gentle, and because he so clearly loves Julyvonne, however misguidedly that love manifests.
Curling is the most recent film from the Quebecois writer-director Denis Côté, whose 2009 film Carcasses, which shifted from something like a documentary about a junk collector to the weirdest variation on the home invasion thriller I’ve ever come across, ranks as one of the freshest and most remarkable Canadian hybrids of the last decade. Though frequently visiting rather antiseptic interiors, Curling contains many beautiful images, of snow blowing across a barren highway, an inflatable Santa descending a ladder, of a tiger inexplicably lazing in the white countryside. Though its characters find themselves in morbid and bizarre situations, their responses are comprehendible: there’s a coherent psychology at work here, even while we’re immersed in strangeness.
I emphasize Curling’s relative accessibility partly just out of annoyance with some other reviews and features I’ve found (cough-cough, Globe and Mail, cough-cough) that paint the film as perversely opaque. To be sure, there are mysteries: that pool of blood on a motel room bed, the tiger (obviously), the frozen carcasses dusted with snow, who become something akin to Julyvonne’s imaginary friends. (Are they imaginary?) It’s true that Côté doesn’t like to explain things. For example: Why are they playing ten-pin with whose itty-bitty bowling balls? Why do Jean-Francois and Julyvonne listen to ‘I Think We’re Alone Now’ on music nights? Perplexing! Yet somehow we make it through. In fact, Curling (sorry, Côté) is almost a heartwarming comedy. It’s about an overprotective father learning to let his daughter grow up. It’s about a middle-aged man learning to emerge from his shell. It’s about silly costumes, and, indeed, the odd allure of curling. And it does, in its way, urge us to reach out, even in the frozen darkness.