Matthew Bissonnette and Leonard Cohen go way back.
The Montreal-born filmmaker’s first feature, the 2002 indie dramedy Looking for Leonard, was interspersed with footage from the 1965 NFB documentary Ladies and Gentlemen … Mr. Leonard Cohen. His 2009 film Passenger Side featured Cohen’s song Suzanne.
In 2015, as he often would when working on a new project, Bissonnette wrote a letter to Cohen.
“Leonard Cohen and his manager were aware of the movies we were making,” said Bissonnette, now based in Los Angeles. “We were always asking them for something or other.
“I said, ‘Hi, it’s us again. This time we stole the name of one of your (albums and) books, and like seven songs.’ He wrote back the next day and said, ‘Sure.’ ”
After Cohen’s death the following year, Bissonnette spoke to the poet’s manager, Robert Kory.
“He said, ‘For whatever reason, Leonard had a strange affection for you guys.’ It was funny and weird — we just continued doing these movies and he continued letting us (use his work). He was always super generous to us.”
Bissonnette’s new film, Death of a Ladies’ Man, borrows the title of Cohen’s 1977 album (and his 1978 collection of poetry and prose, Death of a Lady’s Man).
The opening credits of the Montreal- and Ireland-shot movie unfold to the tune of Cohen’s song Memories, accompanying a gently blurred shot of the Cohen mural on Crescent St. downtown.
Irish-American actor Gabriel Byrne stars as an alcoholic professor who does some booze-fuelled soul-searching after his second marriage falls apart. Cohen’s music infuses the movie from start to finish, making it Bissonnette’s most Cohen-tastic tribute yet.
“Coming from Montreal, my mom was a fan,” the director said. “I was six in 1978, so it just got baked into my bone. I was always more into punk rock. But as I got older, I returned to his music.
“It’s very interesting work. I’m a fan. I enjoy the themes, and the way he just did his thing. There’s something about that that I find interesting and inspiring. And the themes I’ve been working on in my movies tend to be reflected in his work.”
Death of a Ladies’ Man finds Byrne’s character, Samuel, attempting to reconcile the various contradictions in his life, and connect with those he has wronged — including his first wife (Suzanne Clément), his adult daughter (Karelle Tremblay) and son (Antoine Olivier Pilon) — even as he continues to misbehave and fall apart.
Montrealers Jessica Paré and Pascale Bussières have supporting roles, as does the director’s brother Joel Bissonnette and Irish actor Brian Gleeson.
Along the way, Samuel has increasingly fantastic visions of strange creatures and unexpected events, which lend a whimsical tone to what could otherwise be the rather dark circumstances of a man’s unravelling.
“I’m into tensions and contradictions,” Bissonnette said. “The tensions between reality and fantasy, which I find quite interesting cinematically, and between desire and responsibility. Those kinds of things change as you get older. You view them one way when you’re 28, and at my age, 55, you view them in a very different way.
“I’m interested principally in family dynamics. They’re the foundation of everything. No matter what, we have only one family, and there’s no stepping out of it. Leonard Cohen was also interested in foundational questions.”
When Bissonnette sent Byrne the script, the actor was intrigued by a story he could relate to, and a character he felt he could inhabit.
“I immediately connected with it,” said the actor, on the phone from his New York home, in January. “I have known people like Samuel, men who are revered for the fact that they failed rather than succeeded. There’s a kind of awe for the underdog who never quite makes it and is consumed by demons, alcohol and drugs. It’s a particular kind of Celtic romantic myth.
“I also identified with the humanity beneath the initial perception of who this man was — that underneath, there’s this sensitive, suffering, terrified man who has lived selfishly most of his life and is now awakening, essentially to himself but also to love.
“That’s a theme echoed in a lot of Leonard Cohen’s work: What is love? The imperfection of it, the yearning of it, longing for it and losing of it. And of course, everything Cohen wrote about had a shadow of death over it, the collision between life and death, and a longing for something not necessarily religious but beyond this world.”
Early in the shoot, which took place in Montreal in the spring of 2019, Byrne was given a bracelet inscribed with the famous Cohen lyric “There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in,” which he still wears.
“I truly believe that sentence means something,” Byrne said.
For him, the line captures the combination of darkness and possibility found in both Cohen’s work and Bissonnette’s movie.
“I really loved what the film is saying,” he said. “It’s something Leonard Cohen would have endorsed. Light gets into this character at the end of this film.”
Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, Byrne found himself inherently drawn to Cohen’s creative output.
“(He was the) voice of my generation,” Byrne said. “There were very few great writers at that time — of lyrics, I’m talking about. Essentially, Leonard Cohen was a poet who put poetry to music. The only other one I loved in that category was Dylan.
“These were men not writing just banal lyrics like ‘I love you baby’ and stuff like that. This was contemplative, insightful lyrics about the nature of life, lyrics that made you think. And the tunes that he put to them were sometimes simple, but very powerful in their simplicity.”
Death of a Ladies’ Man is a homecoming for both Bissonnette and Byrne. It allowed Bissonnette to reconnect with Montreal. And it brought Byrne back to Ireland, where part of the film takes place as Samuel goes off to sort himself out.
Byrne also felt very much at home in our city.
“I was really sad when I had to leave,” he said. “I had settled in so well. Montreal is so much like Dublin to me — the intimacy, the architecture, the way people relate to it and to strangers like me coming in. I felt more at home than in any other Canadian city. I loved sitting in the cafés.”
Bissonnette always knew Death of a Ladies’ Man would take place here.
“Not a day goes by where I’m not thinking of Montreal in some kind of way,” he said. “It’s where I’m from. If I start thinking of making a movie about where people come from, I couldn’t do it in New York. I wouldn’t understand where the houses should be. In Montreal, I know exactly where Samuel lives — on Ste-Famille. It’s gotta be there. It all makes sense.”
Setting part of the movie in Ireland was only natural for the filmmaker, who has Irish and French-Canadian roots. While the narrative details spring from Bissonnette’s imagination, the movie’s central themes are inspired by his own life journey, including the challenges of fatherhood and the road to sobriety.
Bissonnette has been sober since 2014.
“When I wrote the first draft (of the script), I was still drinking,” he said. “One thing I’ve always been interested in, in my movies, is the tension between reality and fantasy. I’m of the opinion that the greatest struggle in life is to see reality — both your own and then the larger reality — for what it is.
“And then there’s hope. I’m a big fan of hope.”
The two, he notes, are intimately connected.
“If your fantasies pass away, hopefully life gets better,” Bissonnette said. “No matter what people think, reality is always better.”
AT A GLANCE
Death of a Ladies’ Man is available Friday, March 12 on demand, and opens Friday, March 19 at Cinéma du Parc.