Sophie Dupuis’ Romance Dives Into Drag Performance

With “Solo,” the story of a young drag performer navigating a volatile new relationship, Sophie Dupuis delivers a film every bit as mesmerizing as her main character. Affectionately chronicling the drag world, as well as what happens to its inhabitants when the make-up comes off, the writer-director delivers a visually arresting and emotionally involving story that mercifully pivots more on broader familial and romantic conflicts than the ultraspecific cultural ones of its setting. Nevertheless fully rendering its protagonist’s personal and artistic crises, “Solo” both honors and transcends its subject matter in its widely evocative, deeply affecting character study — while also happening to have an absolutely banging soundtrack.

Théodore Pellerin leads as Simon, the ambitious ingenue among a tight-knit group of drag performers. After a performance of ABBA’s “Voulez-Vous” to a rhapsodic crowd, he meets Olivier (Félix Maritaud), a fellow queen who’s slightly older but no less ambitious — and instantly drawn to Simon. Buoyed by Olivier’s claims of “love at first sight” and a questionably healthy dose of MDMA, the two of them not only fall quickly into a romantic relationship but decide to become partners on stage. Maude (Alice Moreault), Simon’s sister and frequent costume seamstress, is initially supportive of their pairing, but she grows skeptical after Olivier hints early on that he plans to change much about her brother— and Simon seems eager to let it happen.

Further complicating matters is the return of Simon and Maude’s birth mother Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux), a touring opera singer who asks to reconnect during a stopover in their city after abandoning them 15 years earlier. Maude remains justifiably resentful, but Simon is thrilled, rationalizing Claire’s neglect both in the hopes of rekindling their relationship and to validate the “me first” attitude he believes is necessary to become a successful artist. But as Claire eventually strings Simon along with promises of her time and attention, so does Olivier, who not so quietly supplants his partner, both on stage and socially among their fellow drag queens. As the two central relationships in his life grow increasingly thorny, Simon eventually pins the prospect of artistic and emotional redemption on a visit from Claire to watch them perform.

Shrewdly understanding that the more specific the story, the more universally relatable it is, Dupuis conceives a world for Simon and his counterparts that feels fully realized and authentic without sacrificing accessibility to viewers unfamiliar with its iconography. Though one of Simon’s fellow queens occasionally leverages the grievances of their community for performance material (mostly comedic), Dupuis highlights how their cabaret is a refuge that allows them to interact joyfully (if sometimes cattily) with one another and, more than that, to express themselves free from intolerance. Yet for a movie set in such a specific subculture, Dupuis makes it easy to draw parallels to more immediately recognizable lives and lifestyles, especially once it becomes threatened by emotional complications.

The reactions from both Simon and Maude to their mother’s return tells everything an audience needs to know about them, what they’re seeking and what they — especially Simon — become vulnerable to. Maude, angry and guarded, has become a protector for her brother; when she sees him, not only chase after Claire’s approval, but also supplicate himself to Olivier’s domineering attitudes, she is simultaneously worried for him and threatened. Simon, meanwhile, empathizes with his mother even in her absence; while he waits for her reciprocity, Olivier’s early expressions of love seduce him into accepting insensitivity, infidelity and, eventually, abuse. Older and more experienced, Olivier knows what he wants and how to get it; he finds in Simon someone so desperate for a connection that he’s incapable of identifying when one does more harm than good.

Slender, graceful and beautiful, 26-year-old Pellerin exudes both the authority and charisma of Simon’s alter ego, Glory Gold, and the young man’s vulnerability when he’s off stage. In an extraordinary performance, he makes the audience want to protect Simon — from the escalating indignities suffered with Olivier, the inevitable disappointment of Claire and even his own reflexive cruelty as he begins to lose himself. As Olivier, though, Maritaud is no one-dimensional villain, even if viewers understandably arrive at that conclusion. The character doesn’t just seek a romantic partner in Simon, but also a thriving participant in a community in which he aspires to gain a foothold. Playing the role, Maritaud doles out his calculating mistreatment in measured doses.

Cadieux, meanwhile, injects Claire with the exact kind of arm’s length engagement that’s been learned and reinforced by being a semi-celebrity — a delight to fans but deeply inadequate to the people she ostensibly should care about. Where she remarkably connects best with Simon is performer to performer, reassuring him after he picks apart a flawed performance, but upon meeting her in the film one immediately understands why her son yearns for the spotlight, and also for the attention of a partner or companion who not only can’t, but deliberately won’t fulfill him.

Along with Moreault’s fretting, often frustrated sibling Maude, Dupuis maneuvers these characters for maximum impact with making it seem like she’s manipulating the audience. Capturing each phase of Simon and Olivier’s relationship with equal sensitivity and affection, she chronicles a trajectory familiar to anyone who’s been in love — the dizzying slow motion of early attraction, the niggling irritation that grows from familiarity, and the awkward, unpleasant confrontations that force a reckoning either to repair things or part ways. But Dupuis is also telling the story of how Simon learns to love himself, or at least see himself more clearly, which pulls the film inexorably towards an uncertain but better-for-going-through-it conclusion.

Dupuis’ self-professed desire to champion and defend drag performance with the film suggests outwardly that its impact could overall be one of advocacy. But aside from showcasing a series of spectacular performances, it primarily underscores the fact that the queens themselves are ordinary (if equally fabulous) people when they are off stage — and more than that, possessed of the same aspirations, foibles and vulnerabilities as anybody else. “Drag queens are people too” admittedly sounds like a trite takeaway from the film, but Dupuis makes the story not just illuminating but accessible because it’s about people, and not just a community. Moreover, she manages to do so while creating a vivid and appealing canvas for Simon’s journey.

Ultimately, it’s precisely that multi-tiered combination that makes “Solo” one of the year’s best films, and the thing that will leave audiences feeling like Simon at the beginning of his relationship with Olivier: intoxicated with the prospect of falling in love with a great young director and ravenously eager to see from her what comes next.

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