Hypocritical Oaths

An island town will do anything to seduce Dr. Lewis

Jul 28, 2004 at 4:00 am
If the tiny Quebecois island of Sainte Marie-La Mauderne is any indication, Michael Moore was right: Canadians do not lock their front doors (an assertion he made in Bowling for Columbine). Of course, the 125 residents of this tiny fictional community have no need to: Murders are unheard of here, and not only would a robber be unmasked quickly (everybody knows everybody else's business), but ever since the fishing industry went bust, there hasn't been anything worth stealing.

A feel-good comedy aimed at the over-35 crowd (think Waking Ned Devine), Seducing Dr. Lewis concerns a once-picturesque and thriving fishing village that lost its lifeline when the marine population dwindled. Government welfare checks keep the "retirees" going but have sapped them of all dignity and pride. A few relocate to the mainland, including the island's mayor, Réal (Jean-Pierre Gonthier), but most refuse to leave. When local resident Germain (Raymond Bouchard) learns that a plastics manufacturer is considering opening a new plant, he concocts a scheme to win the contract for Ste. Marie. The biggest hurdle appears to be enticing a doctor to move to the island, which hasn't had a resident physician in fifteen years. The factory folks are adamant: no doctor, no factory.

Germain enlists the support of his hard-drinking best friend Yvon (Pierre Collin), computer-savvy Steve (Bruno Blanchet) and the island's highly strung milquetoast of a bank manager, Henri (Benoit Briere). Together they design and mail out a flier to every doctor in Quebec, extolling the virtues of Ste. Marie. Not one person responds.

A possible solution presents itself when Réal, now a motorcycle cop in Montreal, stops a young plastic surgeon for speeding and offers to drop the charges if he agrees to put in 30 days of community service on St. Marie. Dr. Christopher Lewis (David Boutin) doesn't have to think about it twice.

Now it's up to Germain and his friends to make sure the young doctor falls in love with the island -- enough to stay on beyond his monthlong commitment. This requires the villagers, en masse, to engage in a bit of seduction, which includes such harmless activities as sprucing up the town to look as picturesque as possible and putting Dr. Lewis's favorite dish, beef stroganoff, on the restaurant menu. The subterfuge takes a less benign turn, however, when they tap his telephone to learn more about his likes and dislikes and start concocting stories -- such as Germain pretending to have lost a son -- in an effort to appeal to his emotions. What will the good doctor think when he finds out the truth?

Seducing Dr. Lewis (or La Grande Séduction; it's spoken in French with English subtitles) is one of those gentle comedies that, like British imports Waking Ned Devine and Local Hero, wears its quaintness and charm on its sleeve. In fact, the British have the perfect adjective to describe the film: "twee." The American equivalent would be "cutesy" or "precious."

Written by Canadian actor/writer Ken Scott and directed by Montreal commercials director Jean-Francois Pouliot, the film is certainly tolerable -- and it contains a wonderfully appealing performance from Bouchard, a big bear of a man. Perhaps one's expectations are raised by the magical opening sequence, a kind of prologue that shows an earlier generation of fisherman proudly heading for the docks in the pre-dawn hours. They are walking in a kind of dreamlike fashion that makes them appear to be almost floating. Even the colors and textures have an ethereal quality -- a trace of Chagall -- that suggests that the unfolding story will be some sort of captivating fable.

The fact that the film is more down-to-earth than fanciful or mythical may prove a disappointment, but not an insurmountable one. The bigger problem is that, while the first half is extremely engaging, the second half feels simply recycled. Not even the addition of a subplot -- involving a bribe to the factory owner and a loan rejected by the bank -- manages to freshen up the proceedings. The characters, especially Dr. Lewis, don't change or grow in believable fashion. How much of that is the script's fault and how much is Boutin's is difficult to say.