The premise of Quebec independent filmmaker Denis Langlois’ latest film, Amnesia: The James Brighton Enigma, is almost more fascinating for what it assumes than for what it states: a man awakes, naked and bruised in a Montreal parking lot unable to remember anything other than the fact that he is gay. A criminology student investigates his now-closed case to determine either his identity, or, if as is suggested, whether he faked his memory loss as part of a scheme to avoid an outstanding arrest warrant in the United States.
The problem is that being gay isn’t a function of memory. Imagine for comparison, an amnesiac who can only remember that he’s straight, or that he’s black.
The fact that the film is based on the true story of a gay amnesiac found in Montreal raises the question: why did media reports at the time treat his sexual identity as if it were a function of memory? Unfortunately, this is just one of the interesting questions that get swept under the carpet in favour of a fictional mystery Langlois grafts onto true elements that frame Amnesia.
“It happened here [in Montreal],” says Langlois about what inspired him to tell this story. “We saw the James Brighton news reports after he had been here for more than two months. So we just saw this foreign person here in this foreign country; no family calling, no lovers.”
Amnesia and the nature of memory are compelling subjects to explore no matter what the sexual orientation of the amnesiac. The possibility that you could forget who you are opens up so many questions about the fragility of identity, as well as fears of abandonment and isolation. And the fact that the causes aren’t entirely understood overcasts any amnesia story with the sense that it could happen to anyone, even to you.
These automatic tensions render the addition of stock suspense plots and Hitchcockian visual grammar unnecessary at best, grating at worst.
For example, throughout the film, when the amnesiac James Brighton meets a new character, the scenes are joined mid-dialogue. New characters are not introduced until halfway through, if at all.
“It was to place the audience a bit in the same state of mind that he was,” says Langlois. “He was confused in those first days, being in the wrong country, in a city where half the people spoke a different language. It’s partly the enigma to create suspense. You have to figure out the clues that are around to find the truth in the scenes.”
But that’s not how Brighton would have experienced these moments. While an amnesiac would likely feel discomfort on joining a conversation between two others who knew him, he presumably sought out a roommate in Montreal and did not suddenly wake up one day in a stranger’s apartment, which is the experience presented in the film.
The fact that this device is repeated over and over betrays both a lack of investigation into the life of an amnesiac and a lack of confidence in the plot to carry the emotion on its own.
Much of the emotional heavy lifting is carried by Dusan Dukic’s performance as James Brighton. His stoic turn in the role deftly illustrates Brighton’s need to discover who he is while rebuilding a life of his own, and renders his suffering that much more poignant while leaving the possibility that he may be lying about his memory loss to hang in the air.
This is perhaps best shown in a scene in which Brighton leaves a party in his honour to follow a pair of friends to an after-hours club. For all the fear, anger, and loneliness inherent in losing one’s identity, Langlois was wise to remember the fantasy of finding oneself absolved of all responsibilities and living in the party capital of Canada. Dukic’s ability to find the joy in his character humanises him and saves the film from becoming unremittingly grim.
Unfortunately, while most of the other Quebecois talent satisfies in their supporting roles, a number of bad performances–particularly of the American characters in the film–mar what should be a moving third-act resolution.
In what’s becoming a genre of its own, with Hollywood movies like Memento and the documentary Unknown White Male which played at last year’s Vancouver International Film Festival, Amnesia can be separated from its memory-play cousins by its sustained meditation on memory’s role in the formation of gay identity.
As one character none-too-subtly points out, “It’s almost a metaphor for homosexuality.” Coming out can thrust a person into a different world where past relationships can seem alien and one’s family is lost. Moreover, notwithstanding that a gay man will often insist “I’m still the same person” after he comes out, becoming gay may also entail shifting personal identities, behaviours, attitudes and relationships. It may be the case that gay people, once out of the closet, can never be the same again, like an amnesiac being reminded of the way he used to act.
Even the idea that a violent trauma may have caused Brighton’s condition has resonance for the gay community, according to Langlois.
“The violent aspect at the end that Sydney is proposing to James is a lot like the gay identity,” he says. “You can realise that you’re in love with another man, but discover that you are very afraid of it and of society’s reaction.”
Does social stigma cause gays to withdraw from society by actively denying or forgetting their old identities?
Ultimately, Amnesia succeeds in raising questions about gay identity and questioning audience assumptions. Unfortunately, what should also be a heartrending journey of self-exploration is undermined by some poor acting and clever storytelling techniques that rob the film of much of its immediacy. It’s a film that’s interesting without being particularly engaging, and good without being great.