Lauzon began writing Léolo before he wrote his debut feature, Un zoo la nuit (1987), basing most of the script on an incomplete novel he began writing in his youth. After the resounding success of Un zoo la nuit, which won an unprecedented 13 Genie Awards, he received many offers from Hollywood, “but the screenplays were so bad,” he said. “So, calmly, I started taking notes and gathering together photos for Léolo. At that point, the film was called Portrait d'un souvenir de famille.”
Lauzon also said that, “When I began writing Léolo, I didn't know where the film was going. I didn't know what the movie was about, only how I wanted people to feel about it when it was over.” He claimed the film was “85 per cent autobiographical” and that it was “above all a tribute to my mother.” The film is also dedicated to André Petrowski, former head of French film distribution at the National Film Board (NFB). Petrowsk, who was also the inspiration for the character of the Word Tamer, took the young Lauzon under his wing and encouraged him to pursue his artistic side.
Léolo (Maxime Collin), a boy on the edge of adolescence, struggles to survive the deprivations of his upbringing in a working-class neighbourhood in Montréal. Surrounded by crazed adults with neurotic preoccupations, and by siblings who have been damaged or destroyed by a hostile and oppressive world, Léolo records all his observations in a notebook, exploring and articulating his dreams and nightmares both lived and imagined. He also seeks refuge in books, particularly Réjean Ducharme’s L'Avalée des avalés, and is guided by a benevolent Word Tamer (Pierre Bourgault), who nurtures the boy’s interest in writing. Léolo escapes into a fantasy life in which he literally invents his own creation myth: he is the offspring of a contaminated, sperm-laden Italian tomato that somehow impregnated his mother (Ginette Reno). His real name is Léo, but he insists on the more Italianate Léolo. His fantasies soon lead him in darker directions and into conflict with local authorities.
Part Luis Bunuel, part Federico Fellini, part Claude Jutra, Lauzon’s follow-up to his first film, the often overrated Un zoo la nuit (1987), is a mature, unflinching examination of lost innocence, the search for home and the ongoing, lonely war between words and deeds. Lauzon's autobiographical child protagonist — whose imaginative and real worlds overlap, intersect and collide violently throughout the almost palpably overheated narrative — is at once a commentator upon and a victim of the eccentric, deprived and depraved world around him. It is this dual role that gives the character his depth and the film its suggestive complexity, linking it not only to earlier depictions of childhood in Québec cinema (notably, Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine), but also to a Québec society in transition socially, politically and, most critical for Lauzon, imaginatively.
This last point was also echoed by La Presse film critic Luc Perreault. He wrote that the film depicts “creation as a quintessential gesture of self-assertion and a model of personal salvation.” Ultimately, Perreault argues, the film suggests that “Québec will come out only by creativity.”
Though some critics felt it was marred by narrative flaws, Léolo was generally met with widespread praise following its debut at the 1992 Cannes Film Festival. American critic Roger Ebert called it “one of the year’s best. I have never seen one like it before.” Janet Maslin of the New York Times said it was “daring and bracingly original… a brave and deeply moving film that establishes Mr. Lauzon as a formidable new talent.” Time Out London called the film “a bold fusion of the mystical and the macabre” that combines “bleak humour with images of startling richness.”
Reviewing the film after it opened the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times noted that it “has already caused a sensation wherever it’s been shown. Fiercely adventurous in spirit, a visual revelation, it is heartbreaking as well as wise, a magical fever dream of imagination, poetry and love.” In his review in Maclean’s magazine, titled “Rebel Masterpiece,” Brian D. Johnson wrote that the film “elevates Canadian cinema to new heights of ambition and achievement.”
Honours and Legacy
Léolo was named the best film of 1992 by Maclean’s and one of the top 10 films of 1993 by Time magazine in the US, which also named it one of the 100 best films of all time in 2005. It was released on DVD in 2008. In 2014, the film was restored and digitized by Québecor’s Éléphant initiative, which aims to create a comprehensive online database of Québec cinema. The restored print was also screened at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival as part of the Cannes Classics program.
Léolo has continued to grow in stature over the years. It was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2015, despite being absent from previous lists compiled in 1993 and 2004. In 2016, it was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history by a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver in anticipation of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.
Best Canadian Feature Film – Special Jury Citation, Toronto International Film Festival (1992)
Best Canadian Screenplay, Vancouver International Film Festival (1992)
Golden Spike, Valladolid International Film Festival (1992)
Best Achievement in Costume Design (François Barbeu), Genie Awards (1992)
Best Achievement in Film Editing (Michel Arcand), Genie Awards (1992)
Best Original Screenplay (Jean-Claude Lauzon), Genie Awards (1992)
Audience Award, Fantasporto (1993)
International Fantasy Film Award, Best Director, Fantasporto Film Festival (1993)