The trio of Québécois films at this year’s LA Film Festival came to a head for me with Denis Côté’s Curling, a slow-burn observation of a small circle of off-centre individuals in an isolated, snow-bound setting. With a certain dry, not to say absurd humour, it certainly ticks some familiar Québécois boxes. But the direction displays an unusual rigour and a discreet formal range, and it is one of the most beautifully photographed films (by Josée Deshaies) that I have seen in recent years. Despite some obtrusive loose ends, it ends up an impressive, disquieting and rather moving achievement.

This is not a film of overt comedy, but its humour is exemplified by a scene where our “hero” Jean-François is dressed and face-painted as a giant bowling pin in the alley where he works, talking to his colleague, an impeccably foxy goth girl in a platinum Marilyn wig. They look bizarre, but their conversation is about self-imposed isolation, fear and connection between people, the film’s fundamental concerns. This is followed by another scene of borderline absurdity, as Jean-François is bothered by a grotty child, rather bearing out the motivations behind his semi-disturbing home life.

We learn at the start that his daughter, Julyvonne, is home-schooled, but discover gradually that this one aspect of a weirdly cloistered existence. The mother is absent, her single appearance suggesting trauma, and adding sinister weight to the already disquieting situation. There’s little hint of anything physically untoward, however: Jean-François loves his daughter very much and keeps her hidden at home through fear of all the danger that could occur out there in the world.

Their relationship, in the brief domestic scenes, displays a strange equality of respect. But he is also the strict rule-maker, withholding dessert because good behavior has already been rewarded, and occasionally allowing Julyvonne to dance to music on the living room stereo. Does he choose the music or does she? The first is a hammer blow of elucidation – “I Think We’re Alone Now”, with its opening “children behave..” the pointed awkwardness heightened by Tiffany’s desperate, synthetic cheerfulness and the couple’s incongruously quiet contemplation.

The second such scene makes a similar point, to Stacey Q’s “Two of Hearts”. The irony is as heavy-handed as Jean-François’s frightened fatherhood, and we sense he might know that too. He has withdrawn from the world, and taken Julyvonne along with him, but his love is not entirely blind, and that is no small part of his pain. He knows that his mind has been twisted by some crippling, inchoate fear of interaction, of contact with others; restrained pace here is no stylistic fripperie but a fundamental, tragic character trait, a near-paralysis stunningly literalized in portraits, long takes, cropped compositions and perfect use of the short zoom (there’s a couple of perfect focus-pulls also).

Jean-François is not beyond redemption. His amusing boss Kennedy at the bowling alley encourages a friendly relationship, and Isabelle the goth draws him out a little in kindly fashion – he seems like a good man who cannot help himself. Kennedy, behind his bluff exterior, tries in gentle ways to introduce some sweetness and fun into Julyvonne’s life. Her joy at being allowed a rare outing, to play with other children, is palpable. Debutante Philomène Bilodeau’s mostly blank performance is appropriate for the character, described as having “nothing in her eyes”. But that is not quite true – she is an obedient little girl, but can speak up to her father in a mature, equal way; and we see and are touched by her excitement at the pleasures he allows her.

The opening scene explains that she has an astigmatism, advanced and undiagnosed. This life is not good for her health, emotional or physical, and is actively eroding her ability to relate to the world at large. Her father is played by veteran Emmanuel Bilodeau, and for the role of Julyvonne he suggested his own daughter. There is certainly an intimacy to their relationship which must come from real life, but this is his film – what a face! – and his closed-down performance includes nonetheless a glimpse of the inner life of conflict, and the tragedy of self-awareness, revealed gradually, just as our sympathy replaces mistrust.

Coté’s script is measured, unafraid to delay explanation: this is the sort of film that a couple of scenes later one can find oneself wondering, what was with that kid’s body? Not all the explanations arrive. The danger Jean-François so fears is presented obliquely: it is intimated that there is a killer on the loose; bodies in the woods are Julyvonne’s only playmates; and there’s blood in the room of the motel where Jean-François also works (presented in first-rate fashion through dialogue before image).

Not everything comes off: Julyvonne finds a caged tiger in a snowy field which may or may not represent her burgeoning pubescence. There is otherwise no sexual dimension (or is her father looking too hard during that second song?). Those unexplained bodies: the dead kid is a particularly distracting irrelevance and Julyvonne’s “dolls” are a pat morbidity. The purported irrelevance of the film’s title is thuddingly eroded – we can achieve something if we do it together (unlike the individual efforts of the ostensibly similar sport of bowling, of course, of which we see rather more). Likewise, Jean-François’s recuperation feels all too easy: his dream is finely presented but still too pat, and the only other thing he needs, it seems, is a good lay, even if the run-up is a lovely escalation of friendliness and growing comfort with surely the most tenacious whore in recent cinema.

That said, I don’t really care about the missteps. In the theatre, the opening shot actually brought tears to my eyes for the colour, composition and grain, and it looked frequently like 16 or even 8mm in its perfectly lit, tangible celluloid quality. Some of that quality even survives on the DVD screener, and it makes one ponder, now that we’re well into the digital age, whether a real distinction may be necessary between films and videos, as one distinguishes between a daguerreotype and a photograph, say.

Natural wintery light is used to gorgeous effect, composition is scrupulously precise, and the hopefulness of the ending is as much to do with Jean-François’s actually cracking a smile as it is to do with the colors of the final shot, outdoors, with crowds of tobogganers, black and red dotting a snowy hillside beneath a sky of a perfect, optimistic blue. One beautiful but pointless shot of a door jamb, however – at a tense emotional moment – betrays the third, secret, central character.

This is not invisible direction. That Coté used to be a film critic contributes perhaps to his film’s being slightly over-calculated, willful and frequently brilliant. His control is highly impressive, the emotional line of the film valid and affecting, as much due to conception as to sensitive playing, and Deshaies’ photography will make you swoon. Hobbled by a few distractions, but seductive and intelligent film-making of an impressive order.

Rating: 8.88/10

Watch the Trailer.