Soft Shell Man



Un Crabe dans la Tete : Canada 2001 : Andre Turpin : 100 mins

“Not a masterpiece. not crap. pleasant. trivial, unimportant. trying to please everybody.” These are the comments of film-critic Marie (Isabelle Blais) and her semi-boyfriend, submarine photographer Alex (David La Haye) on an unidentified movie they watch mid-way through Soft Shell Man. And, with a grinding inevitability, the film proceeds to live down to exactly this ho-hum assessment. It’s a character study of Alex from the moment when, diving in the Indian Ocean, he goes too deep and loses consciousness. Back home on dry land in Montreal, Alex drifts in and out of relationships and commitments, hampered by a chronic inability to say no to anyone: he can’t even avoid acting as a drug courier for an agoraphobic pal, Audrey (Pascale Desrochers).

Luckily for us, this means Alex’s circle of contacts is unusually wide and varied, including his best-pal Samuel, an astronomer (Emmaniel Bilodeau), Sam’s hearing-impaired girlfriend Sara (Chantal Giroux), and Soft Shell ManAudrey’s best customer, flamboyant extreme-sports nut Armando, who alternates (delightfully) between English and Quebecois French in the same sentence, and lives in an opulent pad where everything is computer-controlled and voice-activated.

Like Alex, Soft Shell Man is most comfortable in and around the water – the opening scenes achieve a limpid, alien beauty that the film never comes close to matching, though there’s a wake-boarding sequence featuring Armando and Alex (both actors visibly doing their own stunts) that wouldn’t look out of place on the eX channel. But Turpin never quite finds his land-legs: all the lengthy scenes, especially those with lots of dialogue, have the distinct air of audition or rehearsal pieces, and the extreme variability of the performances doesn’t help – you wouldn’t be surprised if the actors all chipped into the low budget with the promise of ample screen-time, regardless of ability.

La Haye’s Alex is initially something of a gratingly insensitive buffoon, but we get used to him – and he looks sufficiently like David Ginola’s Canuck cousin that we believe he’d be able to coast through life on charm alone. Though it stretches credibility that he’d be tolerated by the no-nonsense Marie – Blais turns in the most controlled, focussed performance. A little of Desrochers goes a very long way, however – and the same comment applies to Vincent Bilodeau’s broad turn as Pierre, Alex’s gay agent and the proprietor of a gallery exhibiting his Indian Ocean photographs. This exhibition provides the second half’s so-so ‘drama’, as the photos prove shockingly controversial to all, even the memory-clouded Alex.

Soft Shell Man is a much safer piece of work, however. Its rhythms take a little getting used to, but there’s enough originality in the story (the diving, Armando, Sara’s gadgets) to compensate for the amateur-hour camerawork, editing and the erratic acting. In this respect, it’s much like the recent Anglo-American comedy Jump Tomorrow, another freewheeling no-budgeter pivoting on a central character who becomes more bearable as the film progresses, and whose energy just about outweighs the occasional awkwardnesses of execution. But there’s not much to be said for Soft Shell‘s painfully pretentious coda, in which Alex imagines himself removing the crab that’s been plaguing his dreams since his diving accident – apart from to express the hope that Turpin and co were careful not to harm the creature in question. Soft Shell Man, charming as it ultimately is, still wouldn’t be worth the forfeit of a single crustacean life.

August 14th, 2002
(seen 13th, Filmhouse Edinburgh – Edinburgh Film Festival)

For all the reviews from the 2002 Edinburgh Film Festival click here.

by Neil Young
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