For those of you who don’t live in Guelph, the Manor is a beautiful, Victorian mansion with an attached low-rise motel on the edge of town. If you follow the signs for downtown Guelph from the 401 to Highway 6 North, it’s the first thing you see of the city as you exit Highway 6 onto Wellington Road. It was built by the Sleeman family, of Sleeman Brewery fame, and the brewery was once across the street from it.
The Manor is a strip club, owned and run by the Cohen family for the last thirty years.
Shawney Cohen, one of the sons, has produced a remarkable, feature-length, documentary film about his family and the club. I was primed to love it: not only do I enjoy the genre (it’s a lot like the Queen of Versailles, which I just watched a couple weeks before), but I am just so impressed that a local person created a feature-length film that was screened at HotDocs in Toronto, to positive critical reviews, and for the last week in Guelph at the Bookshelf, a local book store, restaurant and cinema that just celebrated its 40th birthday. I got the chance to watch it last weekend. I think that may be the first time I’ve watched a movie by myself in a cinema, and what a luxury.
The film is unflinching in its view of Cohen’s family and the motley characters that surround it. His dad, Roger, is morbidly obese , and has moments when he’s kind of a jerk, along with moments of tremendous vulnerability. His mom is severely anorexic and makes for a big part of the film. His brother loves the money and the lifestyle working at the club affords. To me, it’s Bobby, a Quebecois man Roger took in 25 years earlier, I think after he got arrested for robbing a Brinks truck, who steals the show. But maybe that’s just because he volunteered at the Drop In Centre at the same time as I did for at least several months. I was intensely curious about him, even then, but too shy to ask about his story. His story comes out through the film in a series of poignant and humorous moments that I find so well done.
I also loved the scene when Shawney’s new girlfriend, an artist from Toronto, comes to visit. The meeting with Roger is so awkward, with her trying to make small talk about living in Toronto and it just fizzles. Then a naked dancer comes in to give something to Roger and squeezes between Shawney and his girlfriend. Could there be a more awkward first meeting with your boyfriend’s dad? I can’t imagine one. While I’m on the subject, Cohen’s handling of the dancers in the film was brilliant: they’re there and they’re often naked, which makes sense given the nature of the family business, but they’re always shown with a slightly ironic eye and not titillating at all. (Mind you, I’m not usually titillated by naked ladies, so perhaps I’m not the best one to say.)
I have only one real criticism of the film: whenever Roger eats, the sound is turned up so high you hear every squelch and crunch. It’s getting dangerously close to fat hating and mockery for my taste, and seems out of line with Cohen’s sensitive approach throughout the rest of the film. In one scene, the motel’s manager has just been taken to hospital in an ambulance, for a suspected suicide attempt by overdose, and Roger is already moving all her belongings into storage. Shawney protests, “It’s just an insensitive thing to do. She’s at her lowest point and it’s just insensitive to move her stuff so soon.” It’s clear that he applied that same sensitivity to his filmmaking.
As the lights came up in the theatre, the word that repeated itself in my mind was pathos. In a family that could easily come off as sleazy and exploitative, instead they are shown to be wrestling their own demons and wounds, often without much success. And of course, I got to find out about a place I’ve been curious about for ages. That said, this film is likely not for all. The person ahead of me immediately proclaimed: “Well there’s an hour and a half I’ll never get back.“