Quebec actor Théodore Pellerin is quietly making a name for himself in Canada and the United States. He’s made such prolific American films as Boy Erased, Beau Is Afraid, and Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The latter is likely where he caught the eye of US audiences. However, all those films had him in a supporting role. In the French-language film Solo – his third collaboration with director Sophie Dupuis – he gets to take center stage and be the lead.
Pellerin plays Simon, a Montreal drag queen who goes by the stage name Glory Gore. Between Simon’s glowing stage spotlight and his stable makeup artist job, life seems good for him. That’s until things get complicated by the arrival of Olivier (Félix Maritaud), a drag queen who hails from France. Meanwhile, more complications ensue when Simon’s estranged mother, Claire (Anne-Marie Cadieux), an esteemed opera singer, re-enters his life.
Once Simon falls for Olivier, things seem blissful. Their relationship even bleeds into Simon’s work as they form a dual act at the drag club where they perform. But Simon is forced to contemplate whether to go solo in life and on stage once Olivier displays toxic tendencies, fueling Simon’s mental health troubles. For Simon, meeting Olivier was literal love at first sight. The point-of-view shot of Simon gazing closely at Olivier’s back during their first encounter stresses his instant attraction. When Olivier says it, it becomes evident that it’s manipulative.
Olivier goes far enough to say he loves Simon by declaring him the love of his life. An illusion that swiftly shatters during one of the movie’s more quietly devastating scenes. During a casual thirst store run, Simon has an emotional breakdown, causing Olivier to scold him for being so visibly upset. Olivier doesn’t get physically violent or scream at the top of his voice. Yet, he makes Simon believe his depressive struggle is a weakness or an overreaction. In reality, we know that men crying is not a flaw despite the historically harmful belief that men must always keep their emotions in check.
We hope for the best for Simon as he becomes vulnerable to Olivier’s charms. It’s partially due to the central performance by Théodore Pellerin, along with Simon’s written characterization. The sensitivity and heartiness that Pellerin brings to the role of Simon has one immensely hoping things will turn out well for him. Pellerin’s performance also lives in his transcendent, magnetic gaze that morphs from abiding and lovestruck to staggering.
In addition, Félix Maritaud – who’s also on a roll thanks to films like Sauvage and BPM – plays the charming yet destructive Olivier with utter precision. Similar to Pellerin, Maritaud acts heavily with body language. When Olivier and Simon are buoyantly thrusting on the dance floor, Maritaud oozes with allure. But whenever Simon tries getting personal with Olivier, attempting an emotional connection without their bodies, Olivier becomes more physically and pensively stilted.
Besides the acting, another highlight in a movie about the drag club scene is the drag performances themselves. The dance sequences provide the film with some extravagance and nostalgia as the performers lip-sync the likes of ABBA. Additionally, when Simon performs solo – or in a dual act with Olivier – the blindingly bright lighting composed by DP Matthew Laverdière reflects how the stage is an otherworldly escape from his near-colorless reality.
For a moment, Simon becomes a star when gracing the stage. His story becomes more heart-rending when considering how proposed anti-drag legislation threatens queens like him and their right to perform. While Solo veers away from such a politicized narrative, it’s still distressing thinking of how such proposed bills antagonize people like Simon for an act that is a form of artistic expression and emotional refuge.
We don’t get scenes of lawmakers standing outside the drag club, threatening to shut it down. However, Solo expertly highlights how drag queens like our main character need an emotional support system to keep their passions going. They especially need one during such trying times. Besides the self-assurance that Simon tries to reclaim since Olivier first broke his confidence, they also need the guidance of those close to them, whether it’s their actual families, their fellow performers acting as a family unit, or their romantic partner. After all, despite what the film’s title says, nobody should go through life “solo.”
This review is from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Solo is currently seeking U.S. distribution.