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Premiering at none other than the Paradise Theatre on Friday, April 21st is Midnight at the Paradise, Vanessa Matsui’s directorial feature debut. The film follows three different couples at different stages of their lives together. They are all brought together by Iris (Liane Balaban) and her plan to save the landmark Paradise Theatre and honour her ailing father with a screening of their favourite film, Jean-Luc Godard’s classic, Breathless. We get the sense that Iris’s fixation on this particular film may be a distraction from the dissatisfaction she feels in her everyday life, but soon this event will be the catalyst for a shake-up in her routine.
Iris’ connection to Breathless acts as a very intentional thematic backdrop. Themes of love, grief and loyalty flow through this film like a guided meditation, and the commitment to character work demonstrated by this cast makes it that much easier to become enthralled in their own personal journeys.
Ahead of the screening, Iris runs into her mercurial ex, Alex (Allan Hawco). The unexpected reunion stirs up a whirlwind of longing and reminiscence that becomes all-encompassing. What makes Midnight at the Paradise so strong is that it doesn’t solely revolve around the two former lovers getting caught up in their indulgence and ignoring the world around them. The reality of the lives they’ve built and the people in them are ever-present. Their respective partners are not tossed to the side, they are given their own insecurities and shortcomings to reckon with. Iris’ husband Geoff (Ryan Allen) embodies a character with many layers that are peeled back as the film progresses. At first, he appears as a stoic workaholic that stands between Iris and a life of bohemian whimsy. By the end, our understanding of him completely transforms. Alex’s fiancee Anthea (Emma Ferreira) may appear young and naive, but I get the feeling this is intended to be a cleverly constructed misconception of her character. Her poignant lines of dialogue and nuanced performance allow so much insight into how intuitive Anthea really is.
While the young couples galavant about town, back at home are Iris’ long-separated parents Max (Kenneth Welsh) and Charmaine (Kate Trotter). Max is a formerly famous film critic that is now laying on his deathbed. While Iris and Geoff are supposedly enjoying a date night out, his ex-wife agrees to look after him. The easy banter between the two of them underscores tenderness and love in a way that we are not used to seeing it. Despite their ups and downs, there is no love lost in the end. Their relationships asks the audience to consider if hurt and anger can ever really impede on a true connection. This theme arches across all of the couples that explore questions of their own over the course of that same night.
I had the pleasure to sit down with Vanessa Matsui to discuss the making of this film and how a viewer’s reaction will depend on what stage of life they’re in. Iris is at a mid-life point and being pulled in two different directions. On one hand, she is being called upon to be a caregiver for her family, and on the other, a sense of nostalgia and regret seeps into her life and beckons her to chase her bliss alongside Alex the way they did in their youth. The character of Iris was written with Balaban in mind. At the Cinequest virtual premiere of this film, the actress was asked how that affected her understanding of the role, and I was interested to learn how having a role written specifically for you comes with its own set of challenges. She remarks, “When you don’t audition for a project, you don’t know what’s expected of you or what version of yourself they see for this role.” Luckily, Balaban and Matsui have a long-standing personal and professional relationship which allowed her to draw out some lighthearted tones in a character that initially read as very serious. Matsui attributes the natural chemistry of these characters to just that, a natural chemistry among the cast. Her bold experimentation in the edit allows for different interpretations of the text to be pulled to the foreground of certain scenes. By blending takes from different readings of a scene, a complicated, layered final product works wonders in pulling the audience into each player’s motivations and secrets. Matsui remarks, “The film reads a lot like a play sometimes, I’m an actor as well and it is really rare to get juicy scene work so I think when actors get that, [they] will always do another take if we can.”
Each of the characters in this film are driven by a longing for passion and by their fear of the ticking clock. Some are stunted by this endless pursuit of a fleeting emotion and others have already come to terms with what a short-lived rush it may be. As Iris and Alex reconnect, they refer to that spark of passion as “that thing”; an intangible, unnamable gleam. As they rehash the regrets and broken promises of their past, they realize how scary the unpredictability of “that thing” truly is. The imminent death of Max reframes all of these relationships. While Iris prepares to mourn her father, she is also mourning a lost love. The film poignantly reflects on how grief is not rational and the crucial role that Alex plays in this moment as Iris’ “reprieve from reality”, her “healthy dose of delusion”. Time and passion pair so well together here because among the couples, it seems like those two concepts are at odds. In actuality, passion can evolve and work in tandem with the passage of time.
As far as performances go, Matsui had this to say about how the story elements took on a life of their own as the project was being brought together: “The finite amount of time we have on this planet is a theme of the film, and that theme of time was really informing [our] urgency and passion …this is your one life, this is your one moment, let’s do it, let’s have fun. It felt essential.”
Midnight at the Paradise thrives on subtext and because of that, it is an emotionally captivating and authentic story from start to finish. Matsui does not shy away from her female characters experiencing ugly, confusing feelings and how those feelings affect the decisions they make. The consequences of each character’s actions reverberate throughout the film making it a true character study. Human connection is fickle, and this film resides in the gaps between what we want from our relationships versus what we get.
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