“Can’t everybody just leave him alone?”
The idea of a film that presents its story with the camera essentially standing in for the main character so that all we hear is the protagonist’s voice and all we see is the faces and bodies of the characters with whom he interacts is not unique. Over half a century ago, Robert Montgomery directed Lady in the Lake (1946, MGM) in this style and the first quarter of the following year’s Dark Passage (WB) was inspired to do likewise. Upping the ante by also keeping the protagonist essentially immobile and never allowing him to interact with others in person, only by some form of electronic connection, provides an experience for the viewer that is different. Such a film is 2000’s Thomas in Love, which received several prizes from international film festivals in Paris, Venice, and Montreal.
Seville Pictures has now released Thomas in Love on DVD in Canada in a fine-looking edition.
It is sometime in the near future. Thomas Thomas (yes, that’s correct), a 32-year old suffering from agoraphobia and sociophobia, is unable to leave his home. His connection to the outside world is through his computer screen. By that means he is able to communicate with Globale, the insurance company that handles most aspects of his life. Other than the normal everyday contacts with delivery and repair people and his persistent mother, Thomas’s sole recreation seems to come from Clara, his virtual cybersex partner.
Thomas has been a difficult patient to help and his psychiatrist decides that a shake-up in Thomas’s life would be the best thing for him, so he arranges to have Thomas enrolled in an internet dating club. At the same time, Thomas learns from Globale that he is eligible to receive free of charge the services of a prostitute especially trained to handle disabled people. As a result, Thomas finds himself bombarded with introductions to dating partners and prostitutes. What sort of woman can connect with Thomas and what interaction is really possible with a man who can’t go outside or receive visitors?
This Belgian/French film is certainly different from anything else you are likely to have seen. The whole story is conveyed through what Thomas Thomas sees and hears on his computer screen. Actually, it’s called a visiophone in the film, and everyone seems to have one, regardless of their economic circumstances. We never know what Thomas looks like; we only hear his voice as he interacts with the people that appear on his screen. So, two things are key to the success of the film — Thomas’s voice and the ability of the actors playing the characters on Thomas’s screen to be convincing while they stare directly into the camera.
Benoït Verhaert provides Thomas’s voice and it seems to both capture and define the character in our mind as the film progresses. Thomas never gets really angry about anything, having seemingly resigned himself to having to put up with the failings of the system. There’s an almost sorrowful tone to Verhaert’s voice that conveys this viewpoint perfectly. At the same time, there’s a pleasing timbre to Verhaert’s voice that makes it easy for the viewer to listen to him and begin to empathize with his situation. And quite a situation it is for he must deal with a succession of prostitutes, would-be partners, an inquisitive mother, annoying doctors, insurance representatives, and incompetent repair people. All the actors who play these characters staring into the camera right at us do so with skill. Their characters all come across as real individuals, if a little bit larger than life. There seems to be something different about them all whether it’s unusual dress and makeup, or quirky mannerisms, or provocative reactions. Most memorable are Micheline Hardy as Thomas’s mother, Aylin Yay as Eva — the prostitute whom he finds himself attracted to, and Frédéric Topart as his psychiatrist. Clara — Thomas’s virtual cybersex partner — has to be seen in action to be appreciated.
The film is from Belgian director Pierre-Paul Renders who tried to replicate the situation the film dramatizes during the actual shooting. To do so, Renders set up a system of multiple cameras which allowed Benoït Verhaert to be in one room staring into a camera while he spoke his lines. Elsewhere, the actor with whom Verhaert is supposed to be interacting is staring into a second camera listening to the cues from Verhaert as he or she delivers his or her lines. Seeing how this was done (as shown in one of the DVD’s supplements) showed how confining Renders attempted to make the whole process feel. The results are very successful in conveying the claustrophobic nature of Thomas’s whole existence, and indeed how much of the rest of the society he lives in seemed equally confined, though by its own choice or economic circumstance rather than disability.
The real pleasure of Thomas in Love is in the initial viewing. The uniqueness of the approach helps to mask the fact that the central story is a somewhat slim one, padded out with extra characters that add interest but are not crucial to the main plot line. A second viewing finds one a little antsy by the two-thirds point of the film, adding credence to Renders’s initial concern on being approached about the film that the concept might be more successful for a short rather than feature length effort.
Certainly Seville’s DVD presentation is first class. The image transfer, which is anamorphic and delivers the North American theatrical release aspect ratio of 1.85:1, is crisp and clear and virtually free of any nicks or speckles. Colour fidelity is very good. Edge enhancement is not a concern. Interestingly, Renders allows for each of the people with whom Thomas interacts to be of differing economic circumstance and therefore able to have different quality visiophones. As a result, the film reflects the fact that some of Thomas’s callers have equipment that transmits very crisp images of themselves and allows smooth movement; others have more basic equipment whose transmissions are sometimes not crisply focused or which track with jerky movements. The DVD accurately replicates these differences.
The sound is a Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo Surround mix which does a satisfactory job of conveying the dialogue-driven film. The dialogue (in French with optional English subtitles) is clear and accurately presented — again allowing for the differing levels of sound quality that are purposefully built into the film to reflect the different qualities of visiophone each character has. There is little pronounced activation of the surrounds except when Clara is in action.
The disc has three supplements. The best is a 20-minute “Making of Thomas in Love” featurette that gives a thorough look at the mechanics of filming the movie, particularly the multiple camera approach that was used. The featurette benefits from extensive interview footage with the director. Almost as interesting is a four-minute featurette that shows how Clara was brought to life. She was of course entirely computer generated, but Renders reveals how real actors and dancers modeled facial expressions and body movements that the computer graphics experts used for inspiration. The supplement package concludes with the theatrical trailer.
If you are on the look-out for a different sort of film experience, Thomas in Love is worth a look. It’s an entertaining mixture of comedy and social comment that succeeds mainly due to its point-of-view style of filmmaking married to current and near-future computer technology. Seville Pictures’s DVD edition (available on-line through videoflicks.com) is a worthy presentation of the film and its supplements provide some good insight into the film-making process. The film’s story line seems a little padded to justify a full-length feature, which makes repeated viewings questionable. An initial DVD rental is probably the way to go before deciding if an actual purchase is warranted.