The Five of Us – Canada, 2004
Had I been reviewing films in 2004, I have no doubt that I would have ranked Ghyslaine Cote’s The Five of Us as one of my favorite films of the year. It has that rare near perfect combination of story, acting, and pacing, and it consistently avoids the clichéd path that films of its kind so often go down. At one point I expected it to dwell on a particularly horrific moment in time, to show in detail the panic and the terror that people experienced and possibly to linger in the forest while police stealthily moved in. Instead, the film fast forwards fifteen years and very subtly begins its somber look at the lasting impact of violence and murder. It is in every way a masterstroke.
The film begins with a spinning aerial view of an area of the countryside so compact with autumn-colored trees that it is impossible to see anything near the ground. The scene is simultaneously beautiful, dizzying, and unsettling, for anything could be happening on the ground below. Our view from the sky soon focuses on a moving car. We hear singing and the jovial sounds of people obviously heading somewhere fun and exciting, and later we see five young girls having the time of their lives. One jumps into a crystal clear lake, and in the first of the film’s excellent cuts, the same girl - now seventeen years old - emerges from the water. It is clear that this has been these girls’ “spot” for much of their young lives, much as secret caves, tree houses, and green parks have been other young people’s spots. These are the places of special memories, of first loves, deep conversations, and private reflections. Of course, they can also be places of break-ups, disappointments, and tears. The wonderful lake house in The Five of Us will eventually be a remainder of both good times and terrible loss.
The first part of the film serves as a reminder of the naïve-like optimism that teenagers often look at the world through. To these five young ladies, anything is possible. Claudie (Brigette Lafleur) dreams of becoming a world famous chef, Sophie (Naomie Yelle) a chart-topping singer, and Isa (Ingrid Falaise) a supermodel. Along with their friends, Manon (Jacinthe Lague) and Anne (Julie Deslauriers), they believe that they will succeed if they are just willing to work hard enough for their dreams. Their conversations will sound familiar to many of us. They talk openly and humorously about their sexual experiences, or lack thereof, they experiment with drugs and alcohol, and they are bound by friendships that seem indissoluble. Watching Isa and Sophie talk with such optimism about their hopes and dreams, I was reminded of my own conversations at that age. I was every bit as sure of my own success as they are of theirs.
Something terrible happens that weekend that changes their lives forever. The beginning of the film hints at it, Manon survives it, and the rest of the film reflects on it – sometimes in the form of deep and meaningful conversations, sometimes in facial expressions that reveal a degree of pain that no one should ever have to deal with, and sometimes in shocking flashbacks. It is the latter choice that gives me mixed feelings, for as shocking and important as what we see in the flashbacks are, I can’t help wondering how much more powerful it would have been to hear them described by an actress as involving as Lague.
The film is a reminder that the wheels of justice often spin faster than human beings heal. Fifteen years may be enough time for a criminal to rehabilitate himself, yet trauma such as the kind that Manon experiences can last a lifetime. The film wisely does not take sides on this issue. Instead, we watch as the four survivors return to the place where their lives changed so abruptly and reconnect. Their conversations reveal the range of emotions that greet the decision to grant parole to someone convicted of such a violent crime. Understandably, there are calls for revenge, questions about forgiveness, and emotional outbursts brought on by survivor’s guilt. It is all powerful and realistic, and the film’s resolution is as true to life as it could possibly be. The Five of Us is truly an unforgettable experience. (on Blu-ray in Region A)
4 and a half stars
*The Five of Us is in French with English subtitles.
*It was voted the most popular Canadian film at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2004.