The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) has played every short film that Vancouver-born, Toronto-based director Jamie Travis has made since graduating from UBC’s film program. Travis returns to the festival for the first time since 2006 with his hotly anticipated new creation The Armoire, a crowning glory for the already highly acclaimed 30-year-old filmmaker.
The Armoire is an intricate time-shifting narrative plumbing the depths of a particularly charged friendship between two 11-year-old choirboys: Aaron and Tony. The drama unfolds when Tony apparently goes missing during an innocent game of hide-and-seek, and Aaron must delve deep into the recesses of his young mind to recall what happened.
“I always wanted to start a film with someone playing hide-and-seek with his hands over his eyes, and for a movie about repression and the repression of a memory, it always seemed really appropriate,” says Travis.
Travis’s most meticulously crafted, fully resolved and provocative work, The Armoire brings to fruition the director’s explorations of the complex and damaged inner lives of children that he began in 2003 with the short Why the Anderson Children Didn’t Come to Dinner and continued with the 2006 short The Saddest Boy in the World. “I’m calling [The Armoire] the anchor to the Saddest Children in the World trilogy,” says Travis. “It’s really an extension and an elaboration of [the trilogy’s] themes.
“The first two end with the children in potential peril, and I really wanted to redeem the darkness of the whole trilogy.” (Incidentally Aaron looks like he could be an older Timothy from The Saddest Boy in the World.)
With his über-precise editing and compositions and eye-popping production design, Travis exerts an exacting control over his films. Every face, colour and object is perfectly selected and arranged just so. “I don’t know any other way to work, this ridiculous need for control… is very much instinctive,” says Travis. His protagonist Aaron drifts through this immaculately conceived suburban landscape as if in a dream, seemingly detached not just from his memories but from his feelings too.
Travis sees the film as very autobiographical, both in its highly mannered take on the world and in the lead character’s attitudes and actions. In test screenings Travis was dumbstruck when anyone preferred the friend Tony to Aaron. “I was so sensitive to feedback. [This film] is me. I really feel like I’ve unzipped myself and spread it all out on a table for people.”
Is the film’s excessive and exaggerated aesthetics an attempt to present a world as seen through the eyes of a child? “It’s not like I set out to create a child’s point of view, it truly is my point of view.” Later Travis proposes, “I know that this film will resonate more with gay people, as did Saddest Boy — a depressed child with a lisp and short shorts,” he laughs. “I dress my characters how I would like to dress — I like short shorts.”
That Travis’s films are highly theatrical only heightens the emotions of each situation portrayed. This is particularly true of The Armoire. “It’s really representative of some sort of growth for me, having my cake and eating it too: the extreme stylization but also a very honest emotional truth.
“I certainly have had fingers pointed at me for being ironic, but I feel like there’s not enough earnestness in this world, and that definitions of irony and earnestness are really nebulous.” Travis has clearly found a way to dart dexterously between them.
The symbolically loaded object of The Armoire is a metaphor for the labyrinthine structures that the young invent to manage the confusions of sexual desire. “I don’t see Aaron as in control,” says Travis, “of his memory or of his sexuality. He really doesn’t know how to process what is going on. It’s representative of developing sexuality at that age to be cloaked in this mysteriousness and dreaminess.” It is as if all their interactions — suffused with power play — must be filtered through rules and regimens, truth or dare. The repressed memory is eventually coaxed out of Aaron by a hypnotherapist, whose counting down from 10 to one, putting the boy under her spell, is an echo of Aaron’s opening game of hide-and-seek. (It should be noted that this climactic scene revealing Tony’s fate runs completely backward.)
In whatever games they played together Tony always got to sleep in the “top bunk” and be the first to hide. Even after he has disappeared Tony continues to haunt and taunt Aaron, who takes to sleeping in the armoire. “I know you’re in there, Tony,” says Aaron. One of Tony’s ghostly apparitions is on a milk carton, leading to a jaw-dropping, even dangerous interaction between him and Aaron. Travis feels that the scene is just a particularly intense example of his strategy for the entire film. “It’s all unspoken and symbolic, and that’s how it was for me when I had my first sexual partner at a very young age. It was an almost sadomasochistic emotional relationship, everything was unspoken and happened because of a game. We never just said, ‘Wanna do this?’ It was always, ‘Wanna play this game, that gets us to this other game that then starts this other game… and then finally we can be naked in the closet together.’ There were so many layers, not just simple communication. The movie is operating on that level as well, symbol upon symbol.
“Sometimes it’s just so clear that it makes people uncomfortable: unashamedly clear symbolism.”
The redemptive moment at the end of The Armoire comes in the form of a song, which is all the more powerful as all of the musical motifs leading up to it are intentionally cut off prematurely by goings-on in the narrative. “It feels like we keep waiting for this complete musical expression and we do finally get it in the end,” says Travis. “I feel like there’s a point in every film where you need a musical number.”