[I]f there is one director who has made his presence felt with a debut in 2011, it is Sébastien Pilote from Canada. Few have heard of him, and even fewer have seen his first feature film The Salesman. The Salesman is probably one of the most powerful films from Canada in recent decades that recall the quiet intensity of the works of Canadian directors Claude Jutra and Norman McLaren, some forty or fifty years ago. The Salesman was honoured with the Jury’s Grand Prize and the Best Actor Silver Gateway award at the recently concluded Mumbai International Film Festival where the competition section is only open to debut films across the world. Having caught up with the film at the International Film Festival of Kerala, one realizes that the Mumbai jury had honoured the two aspects of the movie that truly make it a rewarding experience—the direction and the acting.
The Salesman does not have the trappings of a ponderous movie. Yet, this critic considers it as one of the finest films of 2011. It captures the global concerns of the day—unusual weather changes and economic turmoil that affect almost all citizens globally. Yet the film is not ostensibly about either of those two subjects. The weather and the economic upheaval that leaves so many jobless remain as a bleak backdrop for this lovely tale of an individual whose life is interesting while on screen and will be interesting for the viewer long after the movie gets over. That is precisely what makes the film stand out—a “lovely” humanistic tale against the “dark” background. It gives you an indication of the contrasts that the film provides the viewer at several stages of the film. Everything in the film needs re-evaluation in each differing context—what is lovely could take on a dark hue.
It is a tale of a car salesman in a small town in Quebec, Canada, that is reeling under some 250 plus days of continuous snow and a local economic catastrophe of the impending closure of a paper mill that directly and indirectly supports the town’s population. Who is he? “I sell cars, that’s all,” says the salesman in the film. That’s the devotion and the single purpose of his life as it appears for the viewer.
It is essentially about business ethics that ought to make many students of business schools squirm– if they have a conscience. A successful salesman has to show results, not once but several times, and especially in bad times of recession. Canadian actor Gilbert Sicotte (who has been associated with so many good Canadian films) plays the affable Marcel Levesque, the elderly car salesman. A successful salesman is not a new concept in cinema—David Mamet’s play that was made into a film by James Foley and called Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) and Arthur Miller’s play made into a film by Volker Schlondorf f called Death of a Salesman (1985) seemed to have flogged the angst of the textbook salesman to the extreme. But Pilote’s debut film provides a new perspective—once a salesman, always a salesman. The true salesman is indestructible. Irrespective of what happens, they go on and on. In a way Pilote’s film The Salesman reminds the viewer indirectly that all true professionals are similar—once they are good at a job they never give up, till they are made to stop by external forces or physical handicaps. A doctor remains a doctor, a journalist a journalist, a scientist a scientist, an actor an actor, if they are good at their job, even after they are shaken mid-career by personal losses that question whether all their devotion was worth it.
Examine the film’s tale from the viewpoint of business managers. A good salesman is a goose that lays golden eggs. A healthy, smart business organization rewards the top performer always, in the presence of less competent salesmen. The top performer is given the more difficult of assignments—here in this film of selling a fleet of new vehicles to the police department. The salesman’s manager (read the ideal human resource manager) is sensitive to the personal upheavals of his staff’s lives—and even suggests that his top salesman take a break. But will a good professional take a break or keep on working towards new goals set by the organization?
Then again the film is really a film on balancing ethics with being good at your job, being the best in the rat race. It might be philosophically an existential question. Do we live to be happy having lived ethically in our professional careers or do we give more importance to win the race and keep our pay packets secure? These are not questions asked in the film—these are implicit questions for the viewer as the film ends. And that for this critic is the reason why the film gains importance. And it is this judgment of each viewer that will morally assess the salesman who cares little about what happens or what could happen to the buyer after the sale, in the medium term. And I am quite sure there will many who will debate their individual viewpoints after the movie gets over.
The film is a wonderful example of a film driven by a great performance. Actor Gilbert Sicotte, always well dressed and quietly persuasive, not just brings on screen the character of a perfect salesman, but also makes the viewer like the character. The salesman treats his co-workers well and they in turn even admire him. He is a good parent and a good grandparent. One of the finest and delicate sequences in the film is of the grandfather teaching his grandson the Lord’s prayer. There is another innocuous sequence when the salesman quietly joins the jobless workers of the paper factory in a group prayer. Religion is compacted into very few scenes in the film but how powerful those scenes are can only be assessed at the end of the film. Perhaps it is intense religion that keeps the salesman ticking. And may be not.
Then there is a relationship between a father and a daughter. The affection of a daughter towards the widower father is not just in the food she brings him but in the understanding that the best gift she could provide her father would be to make him happy in his job as a salesman by driving down to pick up a vehicle to humour her father’s client’s wishes. Pilote’s direction comes to the fore with the visuals of the employed salesman driving past the jobless workers and the innocuous statement of the salesman that he believes in keeping his clients happy. The salesman says “You have to like the people. And you need to look into their eyes. If you look into their eyes, you look into their souls.” Pilote’s marked ability to develop a character indirectly by beading simple incidents is fascinating. The salesman prides in knowing his clients. Yet you know from an earlier Pilote sequence that he doesn’t know them or rather he has forgotten them in spite of keeping a tape recorder to learn from his own mistakes and become even better at his work. Yet he goes on with his job aware that he might be bringing misery to others than happiness. Pilote’s film accentuates the contradictions.
Two incidents late into the film provide the pivotal intensity by which the film needs to be evaluated. And interestingly the two incidents help the viewer to evaluate and revaluate the salesman.
The film exudes a quiet power that is gripping and thought provoking, as the final scene of the film of the salesman looking at the arrival of the next lot of vehicles to sell. You might not get the feeling that you are watching great cinema unfold on screen but if you care to reflect on what you saw after the film concludes you will realize that Pilote’s film packs a punch that becomes obvious over time as you reflect on the issues presented in the film that have universal significance today. Like the salesman who claims to know his clients’ souls by looking into their eyes, Pilote’s film allows the viewer to “see” the soul of the salesman.