Legends: Curtis’s Charm

5 mins read

WHEN CURTIS’S CHARM PREMIERED in 1998, it won an immediate legion of admirers, among them no less than Gus Van Sant. Filmmaker John L’Ecuyer, who adapted the screenplay from a celebrated Jim Carroll story, had already drawn the support of two of Canada’s biggest names—the feature was executive produced by Atom Egoyan and Patricia Rozema.

Looking at the film now, it isn’t hard to see what the fuss was about. A gritty, no-budget potboiler, Curtis’s Charm is a stylish tragedy, a film rife with tension, occasional welcome bursts of wit and tremendous performances. It joined a spate of fascinating films that delved into the drug morass in the ’90s, most notably Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996).

We meet Curtis (Maurice Dean Wint) early on, as Jim (Callum Keith Rennie) narrates; the two are old buddies from rehab. Jim has managed to overcome his crack-cocaine habit, while Curtis remains in the drug’s cruel clutches. In fact, Curtis is so messed up he’s convinced his mother-in-law has placed a potent Voodoo curse on him, effectively turning mice and squirrels into vicious enemies. Even a park worker who’s cleaning up near the bench where Curtis and Jim are sitting is a potential nefarious threat—at least according to Curtis’s imagination.

Curtis’s Charm marked the introduction of a major talent to Canadian filmmaking. The bilingual L’Ecuyer was upfront about his own past as a junkie and hustler; he’d survived for several years on the streets of Montreal. Clearly, the young director used his own experiences to drive home the near- apocalyptic existential crisis faced by Curtis—and the waning sympathies of Jim, who tries his best to listen and counsel the spiralling addict.

L’Ecuyer summons a unique stylistic tension in Charm. In particular, he continually shifts, seamlessly, between a stark realism and impressionism, taking us into the fading, uncertain mind of an addict who’s descending into oblivion. In the true Canadian tradition of Nobody Waved Good-bye or Goin’ Down the Road, L’Ecuyer transformed his obvious lack of budget into a brazen attribute. The film looks every bit as worn, weary and rundown as its protagonist does.

And L’Ecuyer chose his cast perfectly. Rennie, who himself has acknowledged a troubled history as an addict, plays his role entirely naturalistically, never drawing attention to himself. This creates a brilliant contrast to Wint, who gleefully takes Curtis entirely over the top, making his statements of paranoia approach the Vaudevillian. This feature proudly declared the arrival of two serious screen-acting talents: here are two performances, which, taken apart or together, are worthy of analysis in any screen acting class.

What L’Ecuyer managed further— in no small feat—was to conjure up the drugged-up, down-and-out existence of Curtis without ever glorifying the milieu. That makes Curtis’s Charm, which would have been one of the most auspicious debuts in our nation’s cinematic history anyway, stand out even more. While the film’s bitter poignancy remains intact, the state of North American urban life has only made Curtis’s Charm resonate even more profoundly today. Perhaps most devastating is the realization that it has become routine to bump into a Curtis on virtually any corner of too many neighbourhoods in Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal.

But perhaps most astonishingly, Curtis’s Charm remains widely out of circulation. (If your video-rental outfit still carries VHS, you might be lucky enough to find a copy there.) There is indeed talk of a DVD release. My only hope is that it will move beyond the bare bones and give us a whack of extras. I want behind- the-scenes information on just how L’Ecuyer and his cast and crew mustered up such potent dark magic.

A long-time contributing editor at POV, Hays teaches film studies at Marianopolis College and Concordia University. His articles on documentary have appeared in Cineaste, The Globe and Mail, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Toronto Star.

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