Latitude 55 Commentary

Wanda (Andrée Pelletier) works for the provincial department of culture. She spends her professional life wandering the back roads of Alberta soliciting grant applications from  up-and-coming artists, which she then adjudicates. She makes her living judging people and the things they create. She is a cultural snob.

 But right now, Wanda has a problem. She is stuck in a blizzard. She gets out of her car, lights a candle and uses some snow to stick the candle to the hood. Returning to the car, Wanda tries to keep from freezing to death by wrapping up in her warmest clothes, singing and listening to the radio, smoking and wishing someone would save her. The battery fails; she runs out of gas. She falls asleep only to be woken some time later by a flashlight shining in her face. The local farmer who has found her, hoists her over his shoulder and carries her to his farmhouse.

 But, no knight in shining armour this. Her rescuer (August Schellenberg) is a 50-something, bachelor potato farmer. His “castle” is a filthy shack littered with the detritus of his life. There is no power, no phone, no running water. What is worse, he is Polish! Or is he? For cultured Wanda, who will spend her 30th birthday with this “peasant” in his hovel, the experience marks a definite low point. The only order in Josef’s life is the metronome that he uses to time the eggs that he boils for breakfast. Everything else is chaos.

 Nevertheless, for the next two days while the blizzard rages, Josef keeps Wanda warm and dry. He feeds her, gives her gin, tells her stories, dances with her, and assures her over and over that she is safe, that he will protect her. Gradually, the gin, his gentle nature, and his sense of humour overtake her class-consciousness. Symbolically, she begins to thaw out. They exchange stories about their families and childhood experiences. And Wanda begins to face the chaos of her own, supposedly well-ordered life.

 Sound a bit slow? A bit dull? Well, Latitude 55 is neither of those things, even though this sensual, funny, thoughtful movie cleverly plays with well-known and well-worn cinematic and literary conventions. Written and staged as though for theatre, it is dialogue-driven, relying heavily on the slowly developing awareness by the main character and the audience of the trouble she is really in. You see, Wanda is dead. And this rag-strewn shack, with its sensitive trickster angel, is the “place in between,” the place souls go when they still have issues to resolve, before they are absorbed into the great white light.

 We have seen this plot in fiction many times, one of the most striking of which is in Eudora Welty’s memorable short story, “Death of a Travelling Salesman.” Welty’s protagonist, like Wanda, has come to the end of his rope: he is barely making a living, travelling the back roads of the American south on his commercial route. He has been ill with flu, and has become confused by the sun, which beats mercilessly on his head. He drives off the road into a ditch and is later rescued by a local farmer, who takes him home over night. The salesman feels superior to the hillbilly rescuer and his wife, appalled by their domestic circumstances, and very frightened that they might murder him for his money.  Wanda has just left her husband and her job, she takes pills for some unnamed ailment. And she has no idea where she is going; the blizzard makes that decision for her. This plot type asks the audience to consider what identity is, what life itself consists of, and where to draw the line between reality and illusion. One thing for sure – if the main character is physically lost, sick, confused, and heavily oppressed by the natural elements, the aesthetic odds are stacked very high – either the character is about to undergo a long and extremely unpleasant trial which may or may not end well (see Dante’s Inferno), or death is right around the corner. But, first, those deep, philosophical questions must be considered.

 Cinematically, the audience begins to realize that Wanda may not reach her 31st birthday, when she not only has flashbacks, but flashbacks in a sort of limbo-like white zone with neither sound nor colour, and where she slowly drifts by exhibitions of native art. The audience is reminded of the white zone visited by Harry Potter in The Deathly Hallows when he is thought by Voldemort to be dead, but is really in an in-between space where he must make some life and death decisions. This is a filmic convention that we all understand. And we have encountered many other films that present such a space as the “stage” for a central character who does not realize that he is dead; The Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis is a well-known exemplar.

 The question in any iteration of these generic conventions is how well they have been handled by the writer (Sharon Riis), the director (John Juliani) and cast. Overall, Latitude 55 does a very good job of engaging the audience’s visual attention and drawing them into the growing emotional relationship between the two characters. There are several golden moments in this film, the most fascinating being the sensual sequences, where Wanda has finally lowered her defenses and connected unconditionally with another person. These sweetly funny, sexy scenes are worth the whole movie, as is August Schellenberg’s riveting performance.

 On the other hand, aspects of the plot remain unrealized. A vaguely Aboriginal spirituality, which is never connected to the life history of either character, permeates the flashbacks. And Josef’s repeated nightmares flout the “space in-between” generic conventions. Viewing his obvious anguish, the audience is tempted to ask, “Which of these characters is dead?” The rescuing angel in this genre is not normally tested in any way. He has nothing to resolve and is therefore not haunted by his past.

 Executive Producer, Fil Fraser, says that this movie was made for only $750,000. Shot in a barn south of Sherwood Park near Edmonton, it feels like a two-hander from the stage. While one might ascribe this approach to Director Juliani’s own theatrical background, it results in large part from Fraser’s request of Juliani to bring him a script with two people in it – “That’s what I can raise money for!” Despite its financial constraints and complete lack of marketing budget, Latitude 55 (which hardly anyone saw when it was released in 1982), garnered six Genie nominations, with one well-deserved award to August Schellenberg, for best actor in a leading role.

Evelyn Ellerman