Review: TU DORS NICOLE Is A Dreamlike Summer Reverie

If David Lynch had turned his attention towards the meandering lives of 20-something Quebecers during a hot, hazy summer the result might look something like Tu dors Nicole (“You’re Sleeping, Nicole”). And while Tu dors Nicole is a much kinder and more whimsical film than Lynch would likely ever make, its DNA shares a fascination with seemingly normal suburban landscapes (Blue Velvet) and the intersection of waking life and the surreality of dreams (Mulholland Drive), resulting in an engrossing reverie that aches with the pangs of youth.

Julianne Côté stars as the titular Nicole, a listless 20-something living out a lazy summer at her parent’s place in her small hometown. Her folks are elsewhere (and heard only in occasional phone calls), with Nicole left to tend the pool and yard. She whiles away the endless days and nights by working a dead-end job at a second hand store and killing time with her best friend Véronique (Catherine St-Laurent). Nicole’s in that weird, existential time between youth and adulthood (what some might glibly call a “quarter-life crisis”), and Tu dors Nicole charts her shaky path from one to the other with humour and a fondly nostalgic understanding of what it means to be young and searching.

Nicole has both adult experiences (the movie opens with her leaving a one-night stand) and child-like ones (she’s constantly eating ice cream cones). When she plays mini golf with Véronique they conclude that it used to be more fun, the pleasures of childhood having now grown dim. The dichotomy between the two mindsets is hilariously played up in the surreal character of Martin, an 8-year-old boy who has the speaking voice of a grown man and is constantly making romantic overtures towards Nicole.

Beyond Martin and the overt title, there’s other dreamlike touches that suggest that what we’re seeing might all be in Nicole’s head. Shot in luminous black and white, director Stéphane Lafleur pulls off the trick of making mundane suburban landscapes seem alien and unreal, suggesting this is how Nicole remembers them or envisions them, as opposed to how they really are. The streets of Nicole’s small town are often empty, and when she wanders at night she might be the only person around or instead come across a circling car playing whale songs as a father tries to calm the baby in the back seat. The procurement of a credit card is given momentous importance (and scored to booming classical music), while a mysterious emergency box invites wonder. They’re neat touches, used here in the service of a more gentle coming-of-age tale instead of Lynch’s nightmarish scenarios. 

The frisson in the story comes from Nicole’s older brother Rémi (a near unrecognizable Marc-André Grondin from C.R.A.Z.Y.) returning to his parent’s home to record music with his bandmates and disrupt Nicole and Véronique’s rhythms. The mercurial Rémi mirrors Nicole’s more unstable tendencies, bassist Pat represents one possible future of stability (he’s settled down with his pregnant girlfriend) and the enigmatic drummer JF could be another path (he’s an older guy who drinks too early in the day but makes a damn good tomato sandwich). As they all swim and drink and smoke over long summer days, new feelings are stirred and old jealousies flare up. Youthful pride and painful self-awareness clash as Nicole incrementally grows up.

The drama is on a small scale and mostly concerned with Nicole’s mindset. Julianne Côté plays her often as a cypher, with telling flashes of petulance, wit and longing. It’s a great performance that creates a fully-fleshed out character in Nicole, one whose inner world is eventually revealed in dribs and drabs. She makes bad choices and longs after the wrong men, alienating her best friend and losing her job in the process. In this dark night of the soul (which is also funny: Nicole’s told to take up running to cure her insomnia but can barely make it to the end of the street without getting winded) she has to decide where to go and how to move forward, a choice all of us face.

There’s a building ennui throughout and a constant sense that one stage of life is passing and a new one starting. With that change comes fear of the unknown, but hope too. Small details add up – like the lazily oscillating desk fans and constantly croaking cicadas that signal a scorching summer day – creating an honest account of a transitional time in one’s life. It all builds to a whopper of an ending with more than a little in common with Denis Villenueve’s recent Enemy. While Tu dors Nicole takes place in small town Quebec, it could be anywhere and Nicole could be anyone and the crux of the story would still work. To watch it is to relive (or anticipate) those painful, amazing and frustrating days where you teeter on the verge of the great unknown and get ready to enter the crucible of adulthood.

Tu dors Nicole (2014)

Director: Stéphane Lafleur

Runtime: 93 minutes


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