Shot for only $600,000 in four weeks, yet nominated for four Genie awards, Solitaire (1992) was writer-director, Francis Damberger’s first feature film. The script started life as a working class answer to the movie Dinner with André; it is a romantic comedy that tells the story of a reunion between three childhood friends on Christmas Eve in their hometown.
Burt (Paul Coeur) runs the town’s post office, a one-man operation that has given him a good pay cheque and decent dental plan for the last 20 years. Until five years ago, he looked after his widowed mother. He is trying to beat a drinking habit, with some success. He loves Maggie but has never had the nerve to tell her.
Big Al McIntyre (Michael Hogan), the high school football and shot put champion, has kept up a correspondence with his little sidekick Burt, for the last 25 years, sending him postcards from around the world. He lives in California, has a house with a pool, and has built up a trucking firm of 50 trucks. But, now he has written that he will be arriving on Christmas Eve to have supper with Burt.
Maggie (Valerie Pearson) owns the café where they are to meet. She inherited the café from her father; she has never had a chance to leave the town, but has always wanted to marry and have a honeymoon in Hawaii. She dated Al in high school and expected him to marry her, but he left without a word. She hides her disappointment under a crust of cynicism, but still associates him with her lost dreams.
Like Fil Fraser’s Latitude 55, Damberger’s Solitaire has the look and feel of a stage play. It is a dialogue-driven piece for three actors, using one set. As both Fraser and Damberger remark, this is one solution to achieving the highest production values possible on a limited budget. When it is well-done, this approach can be riveting, as is the case with Solitaire. Although this reunion-cum-sorting-out-long-buried-emotions plot type has been done many times before, the movie has a freshness that derives from a strong script and exceptional performances by Pearson, Hogan and Coeur.
Hogan is suitably over the top in his role as conquering hero. He blows into the café as though the last 25 years had never happened; he is just as loud, insensitive, and self-absorbed as ever. He laughs at the careful, restrained life of the little post-master. He treats Maggie like a waitress until he realizes who she is. Then he tries his hand at romancing her once more. Why not? He has nothing else to do. But, as the evening wears on and he is revealed to be a poseur and a failure, it is obvious that he has really come home to the only two people in the world who ever cared for him.
Burt has been making excuses for Al’s behaviour all his life. Bullied and used by Al throughout their childhood, Burt placed complete trust in Al, even in the game of staying on the train track until Al told him to jump off at the last minute. Nobbled by promises to his parents early in life, Burt has never been able to leave town or do anything he really wanted to. He has lived vicariously through Al’s tales of travel and adventure. He has even kept the engagement ring Al was going to give Maggie, before he ran off. Through Al’s interactions with Maggie and other customers, Burt finally begins to realize that he has spent his life admiring someone who is unworthy.
The finest performance in the film is Pearson’s evocative portrayal of a woman whose hopes were destroyed before she even had a chance to live. The daughter of the town drunk, she learned early to hide her true emotions and to trust no one. But, she was overcome by the attentions of the town hero, who not only took her out every Saturday of her final year in high school, but promised to marry her. On the night of her prom, he left without a word. Since then, she has run the café and spends her spare time playing solitaire on the counter-top. Her clock doesn’t work, nor does the gas pump outside; the coffee machine fizzes. She can’t be bothered to fix anything. Pearson uses facial expression and body language to convey a lifetime of disillusion. Comes from a small town herself, Pearson could understand the character. Her portrayal of Maggie brought her a nomination for a Genie award.
Although Solitaire reveals the sadness behind three lives, the movie is a comedy and has some wonderful moments. The opening dialogue between Pearson and Coeur are priceless. Like an old married couple, they bicker about commonplace things. Coeur’s character has always lived in a dream world; Pearson’s character is completely pragmatic. When Burt tells Maggie that the seam of his trousers has split and that he has tried to fix them the way his mother taught him, Maggie tells him that he can’t sew and neither could his mother. Then she looks him straight in the eye and says, “Take your pants off, Burt.”
In the Greek dramatic tradition, all comedies ended in a marriage or a celebration, but the comedies weren’t actually about getting married. The ancient Greeks used comedy to examine the health of Greek society: Was it living up to its own values? Once everything had been examined and problems rectified, it was time to celebrate. Solitude allows Burt and Maggie to heal old wounds and to restore a balance in their lives, surely a fine excuse for going to Hawaii.