Written and directed by Matthew Bissonette, Death of a Ladies Man tells the story of Samuel O’Shea (Gabriel Byrne), an alcoholic professor who has seen better days. With his second marriage about to fail, his children moving on with their lives and his ex-wife (Suzanne Clement) remarrying, he also learns that he has a brain tumour that will likely lead to his death. As he copes with these emotional burdens, Samuel begins to experience vivid delusions that are reshaping his reality.
Inspired by the music of Leonard Cohen, Ladies Man is a rhythmical love letter to fathers who yearn for a chance to make things right. Eccentric and whimsical, Ladies Man frequently walks the line between fantasy and reality in its storytelling. What’s more, as Samuel succumbs increasingly to his hallucinations, that line blurs as his visions begin to take on an almost religious significance. (For instance, in one particularly poignant scene, a character’s [supposed] death takes on the role of baptism for a new chapter in their life.) Though there are some who may find Bissonnette’s story disjointed, some incredible work here by Byrne anchors the pieces as he imbues the film with a charm and charisma that keeps the viewer engaged throughout. A veteran of the screen, Byrne gives Samuel a soul and hope for his redemption that makes him captivating to watch.
In many ways, the film seems to serve a dual purpose. One the one hand, it’s an exploration of the dynamics of father-child relationships, complete with all of its struggles and victories. At the same time, Ladies Man also serves as an ode to Cohen himself, featuring his quirky sense of humour and darker sensibilities. A lyrical blend of music and poetry, the film leans into the fantastical element of Samuel’s condition and carries an endless stream of Cohen references throughout the film, ranging from drinks with Frankenstein to substituting the national anthem for ‘Bird on a Wire’. Though this sort of commitment to one artist could feel repetitive or overdone, Bissonnette weaves Cohen’s influence into the narrative with such love that one can’t help but be taken in by the film. (Incidentally, the inevitable use of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ works particularly well by creating a dream-like atmosphere where reality melts away.)
At its core, Ladies Man explores what it takes to heal a broken life. Plagued by addiction, Samuel has seen his relationships with his family disseminate over the years. Though he meets with his children and his ex-wife for occasional meals, he still remains on the outside of their lives. When he discovers that he is near death, his hallucinations continue to disturb him yet never fully separate him from reality. Frightened and frustrated, his first impulse is to retreat to the hills of Ireland in search of rebirth.
As a man from a bygone era, Samuel continues to cling to the past. From his hard-drinking lifestyle to the fact that he never uses a computer, he holds his feelings inside. Somewhat surprisingly though, he finds begins to find healing through the creation of his book. As he expounds upon his own ghostly meetings with his father and his relationships with his family, he slowly begins to understand (and own) his story in a way that brings healing to his soul. In other words, through his exposition and self-exploration, Samuel is able to more clearly recognize what he must do in order to fix the things in his life that are broken. (Interestingly, this spiritual growth through expression is juxtaposed beautifully against the story of his new lover who seems confined by her secrets.) At a time when his world feels as though it’s spinning out of control, his writing helps bring everything into view.
With each page written about his past, Samuel has greater clarity as to what he must do to heal his future.
Funny and engaging, Death of a Ladies Man is much more than a fever dream of Cohen references. Instead, Bissonnette has created a piece about what it means to see beyond the scars we carry from our lives and bring healing to the wreckages we’ve left along the way.
To hear our conversation with writer/director Matthew Bissonnette, click here.
Death of a Ladies Man is available on VOD as of March 12th, 2021.