‘Oh, Canada’ Review: A Confusing and Unconventional Narrative

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Oh, Canada (2024) © Fit Via Vi Film Productions

Oh, Canada is a film unlike many others thanks to its unique storytelling and messy narrative that audiences are going to either love or hate. One thing, however, is for certain: it will be an exciting release when it comes out in cinemas, especially after the initial reaction from its Cannes premiere, but can it live up to its own hype?

★★★★✰

How can you tell a story with an unreliable narrator? Realistically, you can’t, but Paul Schrader attempts to do so anyway in his latest film, Oh, Canada. The film seems to check all the boxes to be an interesting and successful product, with an A-list cast including Uma Thurman and Richard Gere; the latter is reunited with Schrader after working together on American Gigolo. The film may appear confusing at first, but it gives the audience an inside look at the protagonist’s mind as he looks back to a not-so-clear version of his past. With its brilliant camerawork and cinematography, Oh, Canada also invites reflections on documentary filmmaking and its ethics.

Oh, Canada follows Leonard Fife (Gere), a famous documentary filmmaker who escaped to Canada to avoid the Vietnam War draft, in multiple timelines and narratives. The film opens with an old Fife on the brink of death as he sits down to film a documentary about his own life with his former students, the filmmakers Malcolm (Michael Imperioli) and Diana (Victoria Hill). Fife only has one condition: he wants his wife Emma (Thurman) to witness his final testimony and recollection of his life. As Oh, Canada progresses, the audience sees a young Fife (Jacob Elordi) through flashbacks, which are told via his distorted and unreliable memories. 

The way the film reflects on the filmmaking process itself is fascinating. Oh, Canada begins with the filming process and a camera. When the audience does not see Fife through flashbacks, he is literally portrayed as staring down the camera lenses, sitting down to tell a story he does not have control of anymore. This is not only because of his confusion, but also because the filmmaker is now the subject of the documentary, rather than the one making it. As Fife sits in front of the camera, it becomes increasingly clear that the power to tell this narrative ultimately rests with the filmmakers who decide what to film, what to keep, and when to stop, even if Fife himself would rather be in control of all of this. Interestingly, Oh, Canada also reflects on the ethics of documentary filmmaking, which is particularly evident in the last scene, one that is both harrowing and morbidly fascinating at the same time.

Oh, Canada (2024) © Fit Via Vi Film Productions

The narrative in Oh, Canada is very broken, to the point that by the time the film ends, it is difficult to grasp what the point of the film is, as we have learned very little about its protagonist. It is frustrating, especially as the film never clears up the confusion around Fife’s life nor the holes in the narrative. However, in many ways, this is the point of Oh, Canada. With its nonlinear and contradictory storytelling, Schrader invites us into the mind of a brilliant man as he faces his last moments and questions what kind of legacy he will leave to the people who survive him.

At first, it is easy to imagine Fife as the director’s own cinematic alter ego, but there may be a much deeper underlying commentary than what initially meets the eye. Schrader himself connects Oh, Canada with the idea of death, with Canada itself being a metaphor for death and his own obsession with it as he wrote the script of the film. After all, he was having serious health issues while writing the script and eventually lost his close friend Russell Banks, the author of Foregone on which this film is based.

In this sense, Oh, Canada can be seen as a reflection on death and, through Fife’s struggles to keep a clear mind due to illness, on the painful experience of seeing somebody disappearing and losing themselves. It is also much more about Fife’s own reflections on his life, rather than what actually happened, and how especially as a public figure, he can build—or at least attempt to—his legacy while still alive. The film reads very much like a swan song: not for Schrader himself but for Fife and the late Banks. For all the understandable criticism around the film—particularly regarding the messy and non-linear narrative—Oh, Canada is still an incredibly impressive feat by a visionary and brilliant director.

The Verdict

With its broken and unclear narrative, Oh, Canada is a confusing but beautifully shot film. Upon further reflection, it becomes clear that this is the point. It is not so much about piecing together Fife’s life, but more about immersing the audience into the clouded and sometimes chaotic mind of a man who was once a legendary figure in documentary filmmaking.

Words by Clotilde Chinnici

Oh, Canada premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 17, 2024


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