About an hour West of Toronto lies Guelph, Ontario. It's a college town, known for its slightly hippie vibe, strong connection with all things agricultural, and a quaint downtown. Attractions include a local brewery and a nearby Antique Festival that's open on Sundays during the summer.
What it's not especially known for is The Manor, a strip club built in the mansion built in 1896 by John Sleeman, the namesake of that local brewery. It's probably like almost every strip club you can think of, with cheap beer nights and Amateur events, oil wrestling and loads of (mostly) men coming in to unwind while fake-tittied women gesticulate and writhe about on poles.
This was what I was expecting The Manor
to be about, the strange, sordid, likely comical life of running a small town strip club. Instead, we get something much more interesting.
At its heart, this is a film about appetites. Director Shawney Cohen has crafted an autobiographical doc that chronicles his family to a far greater extent than he chronicles his family business. His father, the club's owner, is a giant of a man, all rolls of flesh. We find him eating constantly, and his battles with weight and consumption occupy much of the film. In contrast, his mother is taking the opposite tack, she's a frail, almost spectre like, wasting her way before our eyes.
Shawney's brother, on the other hand, is made to seem born to do the job, finding himself embracing the lifestyle one would almost expect from making a living from lasciviousness, complete with preposterously portentous automobile purchase. Finally, there's Shawney himself, the introspective, almost philosophical son, seemingly stuck in a rut of helping to run the club, but doing so with melancholic reticence.
In other words, beyond the boobs and bombast, this is a family drama caught on film. Shawney is like a young Corleone, "trying to get out but being pulled back in" by the sheer gravity, both virtual and actual, of his father's presence. Shawney's brother has all the trappings of success, but it's clear that he's just the family Fredo trying way too hard to make a good impression.
The film demonstrates some things unique to this particular demographic - the horror of the Holocaust looms over the family, for example, serving as an excuse for the father never wanting to go hungry again. The scene where the younger brother bringing his stripper/girlfriend to a Passover Seder, as the patriarch patiently explains that they were once slaves in Egypt, has obvious comedic value.
Yet the story of this family is far more universal than that - the father's concern about that same girlfriend finding bigger and better things in time proves as prescient and obvious as it is to the viewer sitting in the comfort of the theatre. Choice after choice made by members of the family are both understandable from one's own life decisions, yet clearly doomed to fail in the way they're shown in the film. It's a doc that both mythologizes this family's concerns and shows them as being a brittle and human as all of us.
The club itself is mirrored by the family's own mansion, complete with lions at the gate, and the twinning of these two worlds is what makes the film so effective. There's some fabulous scenes of awkwardness, yet there's rarely a time when you're not in some ways empathizing with the main characters.
To Shawney's credit, he never comes across as "better than" the rest of what he's
capturing on screen, even when he's very much part of the story. If
anything, his own ambivalence comes across often as either sullen bordering on the petulant. Almost all of us, whatever our age, behave somewhat badly around our parents, the smallest incident causing a rise, the aggravation that only those that have known you since birth can with a quick remark inflict. Yet there's also a clear indication of love and concern beneath it all. This is a candid film free of churlishness or sarcasm, and it's all the better for it.
Cohen has showcased a veritable menagerie of interesting characters, from the French Canadian manage to the zaftig
eating disorder counselor. The film almost plays like some strange Jim Jaramusch or David Lynch world, but without ever feeling forced or artificial. I think Errol Morris would like this family very much.
I think it a tremendous thing that the Hot Docs Festival decided to open their 20th season with this film - it's both challenging and engaging, and completely differs from the winking, sarcastic film I had fully expected it to be. Moving, memorable, it's an extremely strong debut film from Cohen.