The Noise of Engines  ‘San Sebastian’ Review – A Strangely Fascinating Offbeat Dramedy
Quebecois cinema I have seen so far withholds a sense of quirky auteurism that explores existential pain through unusual comedic lens. Philippe Gregoire’s feature-film debut, The Noise of Engines (‘Le bruit des moteurs’, 2021) is one such mordantly funny look at a young man, who is stuck at the existential crossroads while gradually realizing the limitations of his world. The narrative opens at a Canadian Customs college with a group of people – of different age – offering their opinions on the new fire-arms training for the Customs agent working at the border. Some find this change repulsive or unnecessary, some consider it essential. Whatever the opinions are it has become integral part of the job. This is definitely a different Canada than the ones we often in news as a nation that welcomes ‘outsiders’.
The Noise of Engines, however, isn’t about asylum-seekers sneaking through the Canadian-American border. This simply and uniquely realizes the narrative’s central theme of perceiving the outsiders or the idea of ‘outsiders’. And when one is labelled an ‘outsider’, there isn’t much question about the label, but it’s rather about people finding ways to preserve their alleged values/virtues from the alleged interloper. Young Alexandre (Robert Naylor) works as a fire-arms instructor at the aforementioned Customs College. His sex life becomes the subject of interest when his sexual intercourse with a college resident leads to an unfortunate medical emergency situation.
The sly and promiscuous principal (Alexandrine Agostini) after a thorough investigation of Alexandre’s sexual encounters places him on compulsory leave. She also reprimands him for the ‘inappropriate sexual conduct’. The situation is delicately dealt with with a tinge of absurdist humor. The frustrated Alexandre returns to his sleepy hometown near Montreal to visit his mother. The town is replete with natural beauty but doesn’t have any distinct features to boast about. In fact, one popular spot in the town is a drag strip, which is owned by Alexandre’s family. Soon, two uptight local police authorities approach Alexandre and inquire him about a series of sexually explicit drawings affixed to the door of a local Church.
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Alexandre becomes the prime suspect since his face is recognizable among all the cartoon sketches. In a town of that size with a relatively less crime rate, the drawings are treated as the most terrible crime. Soon after his arrival, Alexandre also meets a female drag racer named Adalbjorg (Tanja Bjork). She is from Iceland but speaks fluent French and is also a connoisseur of Quebecois cinema. Adalbjorg forces Alexandre to show her the town’s sights. Though he finds his hometown dreary and desolate, Alexandre tells and shows her everything that is to be known about the town. They both strike up a friendship of sorts.
There’s a peculiarity to Adalbjorg, which is often felt, maybe due to her foreigner identity. But the peculiarity is so deep that we also wonder whether she is real or a figment of our protagonist’s imagination to combat the stifling reality. Nothing is clearly emphasized, but there are ample clues that point to the latter. Moreover, Alexandre’s persecution under the hands of authorities only escalates as the sexually explicit drawings keep popping up.
The Noise of Engines is semi-autobiographical. Writer/director Philippe Gregoire self-financed his three short films and his film school tuition by working as a part-time Customs agent. He also hailed from a town situated few kilometers from the Canadian-American border. This dichotomy Gregoire faced probably leads to the most fascinating aspect of Noise of Engines: the things that make us foreign to ourselves. In his search for identity as well as to ensure a stable life, Alexandre grapples with two identities that are incompatible with each other. The subservient and conformist attitude that’s demanded of his profession is somewhat an impediment to embrace his desire for the arts.
Nevertheless, Gregoire doesn’t strive to create a character drama here. Much of the characters apart from Alexandre are either eccentric or rigid. They are ciphers, more or less exist to emphasize the protagonist’s limited environment. What the film rather tries to do is explore a feeling and the strangeness that comes with it. In Alexandre’s case, it is the feeling of always being considered an outsider. Even deep within his self, a battle is going on, and it probably manifests in interesting ways which include the final obscure shifts. Furthermore, it moderately contemplates the ruthless march of time, which changes our own perception of the past and our background.
The Noise of Engines has got brilliant and singular imagery. What it lacks in terms of narrative development, it makes up through well-attuned aesthetics and narrative unpredictability. Gregoire throws a hotchpotch of intriguing ideas and visuals, of which something really sticks with us and provokes our thoughts. Maybe the filmmaker’s handling of offbeat comedy and human peculiarities needed more than this tenuous plot-line. Yet, this is a captivating look at an individual’s challenges and inner conflicts without relying on conventional setup or melodrama.