Engaging performances lift somber "Salesman"

Mon Jan 31, 2011 8:03pm EST
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By John DeFore

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - A slow slice of life in tough times interrupted by very bad news, "The Salesman" matches economic downturn with the frozen-over landscape of northern Quebec.

Sensitivity to its subjects and a superb performance by Gilbert Sicotte offer some arthouse value, but this unrepentant downer will have a hard time at the box office.

Sicotte plays Marcel, a gifted car salesman whose easy-sell way with customers makes him unlike fiction's better-known salesmen. Uninterested in retiring despite his advanced age, he spends his little off-duty time taking his daughter and grandson to bingo-hall socials and hockey games.

Marcel's small town is suffering from a paper-plant shutdown whose duration is chronicled periodically with an on-screen tally: 240 days, 252 days, 256 days without work. With fewer shoppers coming in, Marcel and his co-workers languish in their drab cinder-block surroundings, staring through Venetian blinds at a snow-covered lot with too many cars on it.

Writer/director Sebastien Pilote moves at the pace of accumulating ice, lingering on mundane scenes so long that viewers will likely have assumed that's all they're getting when, around two-thirds of the way in, Marcel's humdrum life becomes tragic.

Sicotte is eloquent in his projection of grief, and Pilote captures the performance tenderly. But watching the actor work isn't quite enough reward here. A subplot involving a laid-off factory worker who unwisely succumbed to Marcel's sales pitch adds dramatic interest but feels like a twisting knife, ladling unnecessary sadness onto this already bleak tale.