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Laughing in Face of Dying Young, in «Cherry»

Many of us are able to live in constant denial of death. We know that life has an inevitable end, but we can ignore this knowledge or sometimes, like medicine, treat it as a joke. In Laurence Gagné-Frégeau’s short documentary «Cherry,» Montreal-based comedian and actress Marie-Lise Chouinard has to confront these facts, and she does so with humor. The film follows Chouinard as she navigates life with incurable cancer.

Our first glimpse of her is in a park on a summer day. The shot is framed as if we were sitting right next to her and her friend Janie Lapierre on a bench. We get a close-up look at Marie-Lise’s bubbly personality as she laughs and cracks jokes, but the conversation is about death. The comedian says her sister recently told her she’s taking her situation well even though she’s young. «A young?» he says with a smile. «I mean, in the Middle Ages, at thirty-six, you’re already ancient, aren’t you?» The question almost causes Janie to spit out the water she just sipped.

It was this light-hearted approach to life that inspired the director to document the actor after Lapierre introduced them in July 2022. “I was amazed by her strength and her self-awareness and . . . she was bigger than nature,” Gagné-Frégeau told me. Throughout the film, Chouinard shines like the sun, spreading his warm laughter, positivity and gratitude to everyone he meets. But there are also moments of vulnerability that also confront the reality of her health. Her visit to the salon doubles as a therapy session. For the first time, we see the comedienne break down when she tells her stylist that she has stopped treatment. “Sorry, I never cry. I get upset talking about it. But that’s okay, I made my arrangements,” she says. As she washes her hair, she recalls that she suffered from hair loss due to cancer treatment at her last visit, but without skipping a beat, she frames her current situation in a new light, joking that she «could be sick with hair!»

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The director shared with me that when she pitched her idea for the film to Chouinard, she was initially convinced of the project, but as the weeks went by, she began to have doubts. The filmmaker questioned whether she was the best person to tell Chouinard’s story, as the actor’s support system knew Chouinard on a deeper level, but the actor instead encouraged her: «No, you come back with your camera and we make the film.» And I have a wish list of things I want to do with you. So we do it,” Gagné-Frégeau recalled.

Shortly before Chouinard died, in October 2022, Gagné-Frégeau showed her the first cut of the documentary. The filmmaker said the comedian had only one gripe: he cut out part of the salon scene because, as Gagné-Frégeau said, “I didn’t even know what I was saying. I was doing shit.» Gagné-Frégeau and I both laughed when she told me that. But isn’t that what we do? We do shit to cope with our inevitable end. So what better way to enjoy life, than crap with the people around us? «All I ever wanted to do was make people laugh,» says Marie-Lise. «That’s the point, you know? And I did!»

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