“Some say that one never leaves Montreal, for that city is designed to preserve the past, a past that happened somewhere else.”

Thus writes Leonard Cohen in “The Favourite Game”, certainly one of the most accurate depictions of Montreal as a place and a state of mind ever written. A thinly veiled autobiography, the novel tells of the search for some kind of purity through poetry and lovemaking by Lawrence Breavman, a young Jewish writer from Montreal to New York and back. Now comes a film adaptation co-written (with N. Antoine and Peter Putka) and directed by Bernar Hébert.

JR Bourne stars as Breavman, renamed Leo for some reason. Bourne’s male model good looks can be distracting, especially when he’s got his shirts unbuttoned inexplicably low, but the actor inhabits the part well nonetheless, his eyes conveying an old soul and his voice expressing almost as much warmth as Cohen’s. That’s more than can be said about Daniel Brochu, who’s beyond bad as sidekick Krantz. Michèle-Barbara Pelletier, on the other hand, is perfectly cast. She IS Shell, just as Cohen described her, one of those women who create their beauty “as they go along, changing not so much their faces as the air around them. They break down old rules of light and cannot be interpreted or compared. They make every room original.”

To the extent where there is one, the plot is about Breavman’s inability to stay in one place or in one moment. Shell gets it right when she tells him:

“You want to live in a world where the light has just been switched on and everything has just jumped out of the black. That’s all right and it may even be courageous, but you can’t live there all the time.”

Or can you? Breavman loves Shell but simply cannot resist the appeal of a blank page; he’s “afraid to live any place but in expectation.” The film is filled with such insights which often come through the omnipresent narration. This is usually a crutch for lazy screenwriters, but who cares when the wording is as beautiful as Cohen’s? Likewise with the inevitable use of Cohen’s songs as a thematic counterpoint.

“The Favourite Game” is not a perfect picture, but it does capture the spirit of the source material. It even achieves brilliance at times, with the bookends formed by the opening shot of a snowed in park and the finale showing Breavman’s favourite game and in a bunch of other inspired little moments in between. In one instance, the film actually improves on the book by pushing back Breavman’s reunion with childhood love Lisa from the middle to the end of the narrative:

“That child that grew away from him into breasts and long cars and adult cigarettes was not the peaceful woman beside him. That child would evade him and cause him to wonder at her always.”

There, that’s the core of the story, that moment where little Breavman saw Lisa in just the right light and the right context and glimpsed perfection. It’s that absolute beauty that he’s been searching since, through his poems and his womanizing. Only by reconnecting with Lisa can he move on.

The main weakness of this otherwise wonderful film is the way it sometimes reduces the soaring lyricism of the novel to conventional screenplay beats. For instance, the stretch where Leo goes to work with Krantz in a summer camp and the demise of a “half-genius, half-nut” kid don’t fit as well on screen as on the page; the way it’s presented here it feels like unnecessary melodrama. I also find it unfortunate that Hébert didn’t choose to make the film a period piece (the book is set in the 1950s/early ‘60s), or at least not to focus so much on the modern ugliness of office towers or the Olympic Stadium. Where’s the real Montreal, Sherbrooke Street, the Mile End, the old McGill buildings? And if you’re gonna shoot a New York scene in a Montreal bar, can’t you at least erase the blackboard saying Casa del Popolo

Of course, these are only nitpicks which won’t matter to people who aren’t from Montreal or who haven’t read the book and, in any case, even a little of Leonard Cohen’s genius is more that you can expect from most films.

“As the mist leaves no scar
On the dark green hill,
So my body leaves no scar
On you, nor ever will.”