‘Drunken Birds’ (‘Les oiseaux ivres’): Film Review | TIFF 2021

The second feature from Serbian Canadian director Ivan Grbovic centers on a drug cartel worker who migrates from Mexico to Canada in search of new beginnings and the love of his life.

Willy (Jorge Antonio Guerrero) is always on the run. When we first meet the protagonist of Ivan Grobivic’s visually remarkable film Drunken Birds, he is sprinting across the desert against a gray, mountainous background, seconds after his car caught fire. Left with few options, the young man, on the run from his drug-cartel boss, sets off on foot, with another of the kingpin’s employees (Pedro Hernández) in close pursuit. The pursuer shoots his gun, purposefully missing Willy before asking, almost sarcastically, “How did you think this would end?” The unspoken answer, for the lovesick man, now pinned to the ground, is “Certainly not like this.”

Drunken Birds is the second feature from writer-director Ivan Grbovic, arriving 10 years after his debut, Romeo Eleven. In the 2011 feature, the helmer painted a delicate portrait of a disabled young man who uses his online persona to escape reality. With Drunken Birds, Grbovic continues to play with the thin line between reality and fantasy in a sweeping tale of migration and lost love.

Drunken Birds

The Bottom Line

A visually stunning exploration of the thin line between reality and fantasy.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
Cast: Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Hélène Florent, Claude Legault, Marine Johnson
Director: Ivan Grbovic
Screenwriters: Ivan Grbovic, Sara Mishara

1 hour 45 minutes

Willy, thankfully, does not die. Instead, his pursuer — we’ll call him a colleague because we never learn his name — lets him go. He tells Willy, whose boss has caught on to the affair between his girlfriend, Marlena (Yoshira Escárrega), and Willy, to run as far as he can and forget his dalliance. What the colleague doesn’t know is that Marlena and Willy, lovers separated by circumstance, made a pact to leave Mexico separately and find each other later. Based on the engraving on a necklace she gave him during their final meeting, Willy deduces that she’s in Montreal with her aunt. With this information, he heads north, where he finds work as a seasonal farmworker.

It takes Willy some time to adjust to life on the farm, but with the help of the other migrants, most of whom are also Mexican, he learns the ropes. Grbovic and his cinematographer and co-writer, Sara Mishara, take great care to detail the laborious tasks the workers do and the casual intimacy of their bonds. Close-up shots of the lettuce fields are interspersed with scenes of the men clustered together, nimbly removing the outer layers of the romaine heads and bagging them in plastic. There’s something unsettling about the beauty of the camerawork and how it renders this dignified but brutal labor in an almost fantastical and charming way.

That uncanny feeling extends to other parts of Drunken Birds, which boldly experiments with the line between fantasy and reality. Grbovic and Mishara capture Willy’s daydreams and nightmares, as well as those of other characters, using a heightened visual language that, when combined with the dexterous editing, blends almost seamlessly with reality. The question of what is real and unreal becomes just as much a part of the film as Willy’s story.

Running alongside Willy’s narrative is a domestic tale involving the white French Canadian family that owns the farm. Richard (Claude Legault) is considered one of the better bosses in the area because he gives his employees decent housing and does not fire them at random. A low bar, indeed. He lives in a humble home a short distance from the main farm with his dissatisfied wife, Julie (Hélène Florent), and their rebellious daughter, Léa (Marine Johnson). Julie, who’s emotionally distant, had an affair with one of the farmworkers the previous season, a betrayal that neither she nor Richard can speak about honestly. Caught in the middle of their silent battles is their daughter, who reserves her volatility for her mother.

On the surface, Drunken Birds is about Willy’s quest for love and his new life on the farm, but once he crosses paths with Julie and Léa, the film morphs into a fraught tale of white womanhood and its perceived innocence. Julie meets Willy while perusing the fields, and their flirtatious interaction is brief but impactful. She finds his presence thrilling, perhaps a welcome break from her life and loveless marriage. They have a few more moments like this before things on the farm turn sour. To avoid any major spoilers, I’ll just say this: After Léa is caught up in a dangerous situation, Willy helps her. And she repays his act of kindness with a lie by omission, leaving her father to draw his own unsavory conclusions about what happened to his daughter.

Léa’s inaction and Julie’s passivity are fascinating to watch, and results soon unfold. Both parties, previously eager to use the farmworkers’ presences either for their own fantasies or simply for their service, are quick to turn on them the moment the situation becomes inconvenient. Willy, for better or worse, manages to escape this situation and continue his search for Marlena. Guerrero (Roma) is an appealing presence onscreen, and it’s a shame that his character does not have a more robust backstory. As Willy begins running again, this time sprinting away from the broken promises of a new life, one wonders what else, in addition to his love, motivates him.

Full credits

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Platform)
Production company: micro_scope
Cast: Jorge Antonio Guerrero, Hélène Florent, Claude Legault, Marine Johnson
Director: Ivan Grbovic
Screenwriters: Ivan Grbovic, Sara Mishara
Producers: Luc Déry, Kim McCraw
Executive producer: Nicolás Celis
Cinematographer: Sara Mishara
Production designer: André-Line Beauparlant
Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Editor: Arthur Tarnowski
Composer: Philippe Brault
Casting director: Nathalie Boutrie, Luis Rosales
Sales: Wazabi Films

In French, Spanish, English, Mandarin

1 hour 45 minutes