Sweet Little Lies

in 60th Mannheim-Heidelberg International Film Festival

by Tonci Valentic

In a declining industrial town in northern Canada where the winter is hard and the white desert of snow gives you the feeling of isolation and loneliness, there is a man who wants to make everyone happy. He is a persistent and experienced car salesman selling the dreams to his customers, telling lies in order to persuade them to purchase a new car, even if they actually don’t need it. His name is Marcel Levesque, a loving father and grandfather, but also a very persuasive person who manages to be the number one salesman for almost two decades, splitting his life between family and the delicate art of selling vehicles. Marcel spends his days in a routine way, heading towards retirement, but suddenly the small community encounters an economic crisis: the town’s factory as the biggest employer closes down, and the workers are out of work for almost a year. Following the global economic crisis, car sales have also declined, and Marcel has to put much more effort into persuading unemployed workers to find their happiness buying a new product. Suddenly, his life will change dramatically when his most beloved daughter and grandson die in a car accident…

Sebastian Pilote’s first feature-length movie The Salesman (Le vendeur) is a simple and straightforward but very deep and complex story which deals with personal breakdowns and tragedies in the time of a bleak economic crisis. The movie’s atmosphere (excellent photography and scenery rich in details), good acting (with Gilbert Sicotte in the main role) and nice balance between main focus on a personal life and economic fall in the background, combine to develop a drama which not only looks deep into the soul of the protagonist, but also provides a subtle, yet well outlined socio-political message. One of the most interesting contrasts is the one between workers who make products and salesmen who are trying to sell them. This is where we meet capitalism in its fullest and richest shape: the ironical twist of the film is in the scene when Marcel manages to sell the car to one of its unemployed customers who recently lost his job in the local factory: he was persuaded to purchase his new car because that will “make him happy”. And indeed, telling lies is the main characteristic of capitalism: Marcel is a brilliant car salesman not because of the products he sells in the small and remote Canadian town, but because of the dreams and stories he tells. Yet he thinks he can still improve them, which is why he often records his stories on a Dictaphone in order to study them later on.

At first glance, this film has somewhat of a micro-cosmos we could encounter in Cohen Brothers’ movies, where someone’s multilayered personal tragedy is mixed with subtle humor, all wrapped up in an atmospherically staged film placed in a remote area with snow resembling emptiness and coldness, being the sign of social and emotional isolation. But, The Salesman brings out something else: the main character (in a way portrayed as an old-fashioned person, resembling a bygone era of selling products) has to face life’s irony: his beloved ones died in a car accident, heading back to give him one of the cars he has to sell. Furthermore, the movie starts precisely with this scene, portraying a dead moose and a smashed car, with one of the most powerful shots — the blood of the poor animal reflected on a perfectly white and innocent snow ground (symbolically, only at the very end of the film do we see the city without snow, in spring). For the person who is trying to make his customers happy, it is hard to continue to live after such a loss. The purpose of Marcel’s life is selling cars and being with his family — nothing more or less, his life is his job and vice versa. Better to say, selling products is subliminal of his existence, which makes him the perfect embodiment of capitalism. Yet, there is a difference: he is a wise and devoted worker, but also very careful father (he also saves the life of a customer who tried to commit suicide). Nevertheless, after the tragedy he is unwilling to have a break or go into retirement, unconsciously realizing that he is now left only with his job. To continue with telling dreams and stories is the only way he can cope with this personal loss.

Sebastian Pilote’s first feature film tells more about the societies we live in than it looks at first glance, and is both nicely written and directed. Avoiding being a pretentiously socially engaged film, and instead focusing on one man’s life story, it reveals a more refined background than films that attempt to sum-up the economic crisis in a clear and overtly engaged political message. As the director wisely stated in one interview, “Both salesman and filmmaker tell lies, but always try to dress them up nice”. Finally, it all comes up to dreams. As Shakespeare famously wrote: “We are such stuff as dreams are made on”. And we might add: the dreams are stuff on which both capitalism and films are made of.