Drew Burnett Gregory is back at the Toronto International Film Festival for Autostraddle! Follow along with her coverage of all the LGBTQ+ films at the prestigious festival.
There are dozens of lesbian vampire movies so why can’t we have two lesbian conductor movies?
It’s almost impossible to discuss Chloé Robichaud’s masterful debut Days of Happiness without mentioning last year’s TÀR. Any movie as debated and memed as the Cate Blanchett-starrer would hover over new work with a vaguely similar premise. But if we’re going to give in to the impulse and compare the two films, let’s move beyond jokes and discuss what they actually have in common: meditations on control and abuse.
Robichaud’s film is about Emma, an ambitious young conductor serving out a residency with a prestigious orchestra in Montreal. Her work might be her priority, but it’s not her entire life. She has a close group of queer friends, she’s not-so-casually dating a cellist at her residency, and she has regular meetings with her controlling father/manager.
The film is demarcated by the three performances she conducts at the orchestra: Mozart, Schoenberg, and Mahler. While I come to the film with only minimal music knowledge, Robichaud makes sure to communicate the nuances of these composers and how their pieces mirror Emma’s mental state. A movie this aural and stylistically assured at first makes the script feel secondary, and yet it’s the script’s ability to communicate meaning that makes the movie so effective. Every scene teaches us more about the characters — and the world of music they inhabit — without ever feeling contrived.
Emma is a recognizable queer character. She is proof there’s a middle ground between the specificities of gay life being ignored and a person’s sexuality being their defining character trait. Her familial conflicts lead to her personal conflicts which lead to her work conflicts. She’s spent her whole life trying to be perfect, and now that she’s on the precipice of true success, she’s told she needs to have more fun, be looser, be more emotional. It’s fascinating and painful to watch Emma try to give up control in most of her life while wrestling control back from her father. There’s something so tender about watching a person try to do better, try to be better, even if that means being worse.
Sophie Desmarais as Emma carries the film. The character is so different at work, with her father, with her mother, with her friends, with the cellist Naëlle, and with Naëlle’s son. Desmarais captures all these parts of Emma and her ever-shifting vulnerability. Nour Belkhiria as Naëlle helps create a person who feels like she could be the center of her own film. The two women and their relationship is so authentic. Their fights don’t have to dip into melodrama because they crackle with the nuances of life.
While TÀR leaned on operatic style, impressive speeches, and vague references to cancel culture, Days of Happiness keeps returning to character. TÀR’s portrayal of abuse is where that film faltered — here it’s where the film finds its greatest power. As Emma’s father reveals more of himself and his past, the film ends up being one of the smartest I’ve ever seen about power, control, and harm.
But just because the film is more tender and more grounded doesn’t mean it isn’t still formally impressive. Robichaud, her sound team, editor Yvann Thibaudeau, and DP Ariel Méthot capture Emma’s headspace by turning again and again to the music. It’s how Emma sees the world and it’s how they allow us to see her world.
It’s rare to watch queer work about familial conflict that doesn’t center on homophobia or transphobia. Whether or not family is supportive of queerness is usually the question that hovers over these relationships in queer cinema. But plenty of us experience other conflicts with family and those conflicts too are impacted by our genders and sexualities. Who we are influences every part of our lives, every one of our relationships.
At first, I felt like my visceral connection to this movie was due to a personal relatability. It’s true that I’m a workaholic who often feels like I’m not expressing enough emotion or expressing emotion correctly. But the longer I sat with the film, the more I felt like this resonance was a trick. Great character-driven filmmaking has a way of feeling personal to anyone who watches it.
It shows us human beings, and we say, hey that’s me. I’m human too. Even if we don’t know Schoenberg from Mahler.