Sam (Gabriel Byrne) is a poetry professor. He’s 64, and is second marriage is coming to an end – in the opening scene he bursts in on his wife in bed with another man. When he gets petulant about her fucking in their bed, she reminds him that it isn’t the first time it’s been used for sordid affairs – but in the past it was him beneath the bedsheets.
Sam seems to have a thing for hopeless trysts with increasingly younger women – well, they remain the same age while he gets older. He’s been drinking heavily for at least 4 decades, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. He starts having hallucinations – of bar workers with tiger heads, of a fellow drinker dressed up as Frankenstein’s monster or of his students doing a song and dance show instead of looking bored and playing with their phones. And then there’s his dad – who died when Sam was 16 – who’s returned as a ghost to swap lines from Hamlet.
A visit to the doctor finds that Sam has a brain tumour – bigger than any the doctor has previously seen. Not only is this the likely source of his hallucinations – he probably only has a couple of months left to live. This, and the general deterioration of Sam’s life, causes him to go back to the Old Country to write the autobiography that he’s never got round to writing. There he meets landscapes funded by the Irish Tourist Board and a 30-year old French Canadian model working in the local store.
The film is in 3 acts, and somewhere in the first act I started worrying that we were going to fall out. This was when Sam’s hallucinations were at their height, which made for picturesque and sometimes funny scenes, but deprived us of any jeopardy. If what we see has been made up by Sam’s tumour-addled brain, then literally anything can happen. Fortunately, this is primarily a set up for a later plot twist, and the hallucinations drop down to a manageable level as the film proceeds.
And then there’s all the Leonard Cohen stuff. The film opens to the title song, which is just as I remember it – overproduced by Phil Spector, and still a little naff. But it does capture the feeling of an ageing lothario who – to take another Cohen lyric – now hurts in the places that he used to play. Throughout the film, Cohen’s songs keep coming up – sometimes as background music, sometimes sung by the objects of Sam’s hallucination. And strangely, it works.
The main reason that Death of a Ladies Man keeps us on board is Gabriel Byrne’s effortless charm. Sam is a wreck, and not very nice. His son is an ice hockey player who has just come out as gay, and his daughter is into challenging theatre, smashing the patriarchy and is just starting to dabble with hard drugs. Yet as we see the film from Sam’s POV, we learn little more. He is too self-obsessed to really worry about his kids.
Throughout the film, Sam doesn’t learn from his mistakes. He doesn’t suddenly discover that he should spend more time with his kids, or stop treating the young women he comes into contact with as optional extras. While this may go against of Proper Cinema (what’s the point of telling stories if the characters don’t learn from their mistakes?), it feels true to Sam, the person, who – if truth be told – is a bit of an arsehole.
And yet, for all this, it is difficult to hate him. He’s a decent-ish guy who would like to be a better person, and would love to know why his mother abandoned him, and his father, when he was a kid. When he puts this question to his dad, he’s told that ghosts don’t work that way. Besides which, it seems most likely that his mother left because Sam was an irritating little shit who took after his deadbeat dad.
Despite the lack of character development, Death of a Ladies Man seems authentic – or at least as authentic as a film that is based on the paranoid delusions of a man with a brain tumour can be. It doesn’t tell us much about life, but if we set the bar for acceptable films that high, then maybe we should think again what we’re doing with ourselves. It’s a simple tale, well told. And that’s fine enough as it is.