Published Sep 01, 2013With extreme formality, dividing up each shot of every aerobic sequence with equal runtime, vacillating between medium close-ups and close-ups, Chloé Robichaud's idiosyncratic and oddly eerie directorial debut, Sarah Prefers to Run, presents the titular activity as a cold, mathematic exercise that demands rigidity and specificity.
Sarah (Sophie Desmarais) warms up, stretches and circles the track with her fellow teammates in a montage as clinical as it is compelling, thrusting us into the seemingly minimalist inner-universe of our protagonist while demonstrating how demanding the sport is with a style reminiscent of Sarah's internal psychology.
Quite simply, Sarah's motivations and trajectory are summed up in the title. Being the small-town track superstar, training daily, when not earning extra cash at a local restaurant, she sets her sights on joining the track team at McGill. Unable to qualify for any sort of bursaries on her own, and being limited to only a partial athletic scholarship, she decides to move to Montreal with Antoine (Jean-Sébastien Courchesne), a male colleague that assures her he only wants a platonic relationship, despite being willing to foot the bill for rent until Sarah can find a part-time job to chip in.
Though we understand that Antoine likely wants more, especially when he suggests they marry to take advantage of a government bursary for wedded students, Sarah is focused entirely on her craft. She's as wide-eyed and innocent as she is deeply repressed, running around the track to avoid her gaze occasionally lingering on fellow runner Zoey (Geneviéve Boivin-Roussy).
Early in the film, it seems as though this might be a sexual coming-of-age story, mirroring our likable but disturbingly empty protagonist's solipsistic mania with unfulfilled desires. When confronted with emotional decisions (Antoine's marriage proposal and a bit of bad, emotional karaoke from Zoey), her heart skips a beat, threatening her track career (a seemingly obvious metaphor) with a medical anomaly.
However, Robichaud isn't interested in pat resolutions or convenient definitions. Throughout, a sequence where Sarah is interviewed for the school paper reiterates the inherent simplicity of her motivations. When asked if she sees running as a bigger metaphor for life or has any nationalistic aspirations, she considers the questions briefly, shrugs her shoulders and indicates that running and improving are her only drives. Even Antoine questions his feelings for her, pointing out that she's not particularly funny or chatty, being an empty, albeit attractive, vessel for him to project his fantasies onto.
This works because of Robichaud's intensely consistent vision and shrewd sense of intuition. There's a precision to every sequence that imbues the discomforting moments where the soundtrack goes off-key and the camera lingers on something seemingly irrelevant with distressing power. We're meant to feel challenged by our comfort with a character that refuses to accept traditional norms or the sort of cinematic affirmations that force a bland sense of moral ubiquity onto the masses.
Sarah doesn't care about politics, morality, social expectations or doing the right thing; she just wants to run.