A series of commuters turn up at the lost property office of a Montreal train station. One is looking for a missing binder, another for a beloved hat left in a train carriage. From this modest beginning we follow the commuters into their daily lives and encounter their friends and family – all the while being invited to meditate on what it means to lose something. Lose property, lose loved ones, and – when our lives end – lose everything.
Jean-François Lesage’s new documentary Prayer for a Lost Mitten is either a master work or a deafeningly pretentious one. In the immediate aftermath of viewing the film it is honestly a little difficult to tell. At its core there is something that seems genuinely transcendent and insightful about human behaviour and nostalgia. On the surface it regularly feels like a checklist for arch self-aware arthouse nonsense. Which side of the film strikes you the hardest will probably dictate your own response to it.
While it is a documentary that interviews real people, there is a high sense of artificiality to its presentation. The film is shot, quite beautifully, in black and white by Marianne Ploska. Interstitial shots between scenes present Montreal in a captivating sense of mid-winter. While it is certainly visually attractive, it does make much of the documentary feel rather pre-developed and staged. What it gains in lyrical beauty it loses in authenticity. That feeling is exacerbated by Tom Brunt’s musical score, which is dominated by a single melancholic clarinet. Its repetitive nature and manipulative feel test the viewer’s resolve a little in the first few minutes; in all honesty by the film’s end it is testing one’s resolve a lot. Even the title feels worthy of mockery – Prayer for a Lost Mitten sounds like a title for a made-up movie specifically to ridicule arthouse cinema.
This artificial veneer is a genuine shame, because under the surface Prayer for a Lost Mitten contains some stunning moments of human behaviour, senses of memory, and expressions of personal belief. While it begins with a chain of passengers searching for their possessions at a train station, it soon expands to incorporate their partners, families, and friends. The film transforms into one of heartfelt conversation – and sometimes what feels like confession – over an ever-expanding idea of loss. When it works, it emotionally punctures. In one scene, a woman expounds at length over the unexpected significance of losing her tuque (a knitted hat) on the train. In another, an anonymous man explains how his HIV diagnosis transformed his decade-long relationship with his partner. It may begin with a lost property office, but Lesage soon moves onto ideas of loss in general, of memory, and ultimately of human nature.
The film is currently streaming online in Australia as part of the Melbourne International Film Festival, which is running entirely over the Internet due to Melbourne’s strict COVID-19 lockdown. Watching a film like this – small, intimate, and thoughtful – while locked in at home and mourning better days of previous years provides an additional resonance that Lesage could never have anticipated. Prayer for a Lost Mitten is very much a love-it-or-hate-it kind of a film, but in unexpectedly feels rather perfect for the cinema of 2020.
Prayer for a Lost Mitten is currently streaming at the Melbourne International Film Festival. Click here for more information and booking details.