Laughing in the Face of Dying Young, in “Cherry”

Many of us are able to live in constant denial about death. We know that life has an inescapable end, but we can ignore that knowledge or sometimes, as a remedy, treat it like a joke. In Laurence Gagné-Frégeau’s short documentary “Cherry,” Marie-Lise Chouinard, a comedian and actor based in Montreal, must face these facts head on, and she does so with humor. The film follows Chouinard as she navigates life with terminal cancer.

Our first look at her is at a park on a summer day. The shot is framed as if we’re sitting right next to her and her friend Janie Lapierre on a bench. We get an up-close view of Marie-Lise’s bubbly personality as she laughs and makes jokes, but the conversation is about death. The comedian shares that her nurse recently told her that she’s taking her situation well in spite of being young. “Young?” she says with a grin. “I mean, in medieval times, at thirty-six years old, you’re already ancient, right?” The question almost causes Janie to spit out the water that she had just sipped.

It’s this lighthearted approach to life that inspired the director to document the actor after Lapierre introduced them, in July, 2022. “I was just 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 her warm laughter, positivity, and gratitude to everyone she encounters. But there are moments of vulnerability, as well, which also confront the reality about her health. Her visit to a salon serves as a therapy session. We see the comedian break down for the first time, as she tells her stylist that she’s stopped treatment. “Sorry, I never cry. I get upset talking about it. But it’s O.K. I’ve made my arrangements,” she says. As her hair is being washed, she recalls that during her last visit she was experiencing hair loss because of her cancer therapy, but, without skipping a beat, she frames her current situation in a new light, joking that she “might as well be sick with hair!”

The director shared with me that, when she proposed her idea for the film to Chouinard, she was originally confident about the project, but as the weeks went by she started to become doubtful. The filmmaker questioned whether she was the best person to tell Chouinard’s story because the actor’s support system knew Chouinard on a deeper level, but the actor instead encouraged her: “No, you are coming back with your camera, and we are doing a film. And I have a wish list of stuff that I want to do with you. So we are doing this,” Gagné-Frégeau recalled.

Shortly before Chouinard passed away, in October, 2022, Gagné-Frégeau showed her the first edit of the documentary. The filmmaker said that the comedian had only one note: cut a section of the salon scene, because, she told Gagné-Frégeau, “I didn’t even know what I was saying. I was bullshitting.” Gagné-Frégeau and I both laughed as she told me this. But isn’t that what we do? We bullshit ourselves to cope with our unavoidable end. So what better way is there to enjoy life than to bullshit with those around us? “All I’ve ever wanted was to make people laugh,” Marie-Lise says in the film. “That was the point, you know? And I did it!”

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