If Brokeback Mountain was the bleak gay drama of 2005 that even heterosexual audiences could enjoy (if that is the right word for sitting through 130+ minutes of sheep, heartbreak and homophobia), then another 2005 Venice Film Festival feature, the equally heterosexually enjoyable C.R.A.Z.Y., puts the colour back in the adjective ‘gay’. Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, C.R.A.Z.Y. is the most successful film to have come out of Québec since Denys Arcand’s Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions) and it is easy to see why: spanning over twenty years, the dense saga tells the colourful story of growing up in a large Quebec family.

C.R.A.Z.Y. starts with the birth of Zachary (Emile Vallée as a child, Marc-André Grondin as a teenager) to his singing working-class father (Michel Côté) and religious mother (Danielle Proulx) on Christmas day 1960. The fourth of five brothers (he is the "Z" of the title), over the years Zach realises that he is different, becoming the butt of fag jokes for his siblings and a great worry for his conservative father. His pious mother somehow feels that her son is unlike her other sons and does not miss an opportunity to remind him with whom he shares his birthday; she thinks Zach might have a gift to heal people. Unfortunately his powers cannot be used to ‘cure’ himself.

Grondin, in what can only be called a career-defining performance, perfectly captures the oscillating movements in that undefined area between child- and adulthood that being a teenager is all about. He may be different, but everyone who has been an adolescent can relate to Zach’s difficult balancing act of trying to fit in while balancing the demands of self, family and society at large at large. The treatment of his awakening sexuality in this light makes C.R.A.Z.Y. accessible for every person, straight or gay. In fact, when we spoke with Mr Vallée at the Venice Film Festival he insisted that his film "is not a coming out tale". Instead, it is about growing up, being different and finding your place.

C.R.A.Z.Y. does not provide a typical male love interest for Zach, with Mr Vallée preferring to focus on the family, which makes the film a lot tamer than ‘Brokeback Mountain’ (and more suitable for family viewing). Inspired by the life of co-writer François Boulay, himself one of five brothers, the main focus is on the father-son dynamics but the film is also the story of an era, a place, an extended family, countless car wax jobs, shotguns, the best spaghetti sauce in the world and ironing sandwiches in the kitchen.

In a process that took ten years, Mr Vallée wrote the screenplay using raw, diary-like material provided by Mr Boulay. There are elements of Mr Vallée’s own life in the story of C.R.A.Z.Y. as well, especially the devout mother figure and the focus on the musical father and music in general. Though the director and his co-screenwriter wrote from their own experiences, their work will be instantly recognisable for anyone who has grown up in Québec, in a large family, in the 1960s through the 1980s, or all of the above. The only stumbling block of their script is its resulting running time, which is either too long or too short. At just over two hours, the film is unable to sustain its momentum throughout; a notably long sequence abroad is a narrative necessity but shatters the neatly contained action set in and around the family house. The film is also too short to give all siblings but Zach’s older brother Raymond (who plays an important role in the film’s conclusion) the screen time they deserve to brand C.R.A.Z.Y. a flower power version of the Forsythe Saga or anything by Tolstoy.

Nevertheless, C.R.A.Z.Y. is a perfect case study on how to create something organic out of widely disparate elements. Technically inventive and slick and set to an incredible soundtrack that reunites sacred music, Patsy Cline, David Bowie, Pink Floyd and Charles Aznavour, the film overcomes all the trappings of genre to create its own. "I just focused on the story itself, rather than trying to think about a particular genre," the director explained. "For me, being a filmmaker is being a storyteller; I want to have a good time while making it and the public to have a good time when watching it. My films should be rollercoaster rides in which unexpected and exciting things happen and which leave you elated when they are over."

The main concern seemed to have been to avoid slipping into melodrama, which Mr Vallée deftly circumvents by refraining from staying glued to the actors’ faces, instead preferring medium shots that show the characters (sometimes not even in focus) in their surroundings. Said the director: "I told the actors not to cry in any of the scenes except for two, trying to create something more evocative and subtle". According to Mr Vallée, the ultimate message of this crazy film is "One of faith, though not necessarily in the church but rather in people themselves".

A touching tale that mixes the sacred and the profane, the personal and the universal, C.R.A.Z.Y. , with its UK release this week (21/04/06), has now embarked on its bid for world domination.

Boyd van Hoeij

The author is the editor of Europeanfilms.net.