The short film “A Deer Is A Horse” follows a man after he gets a phone call about a missed appointment. Photos by Chris Gervais

In the most recent vote for Sight & Sound magazine’s Greatest Film of All Time poll, Chantal Akerman’s 1975 film “Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” gained the top spot for the first time. It unseated previous and perennial winners such as “Vertigo,” “Bicycle Thieves” and, naturally, “Citizen Kane,” with a wide swath of the world’s film critics in agreement that Akerman’s three-and-a-half hour film about a lonely single mother (the great Delphine Seyrig) dispiritedly going through her daily routine (which includes bouts of sex work, each as listless as her other daily chores) is, indeed, the best movie ever.

Maine filmmaker Chris Gervais gets it.

“There’s just something I’m drawn to, these long takes, the real suffering of stories you watch,” explained Thomaston resident Gervais. “They’re kind of like endurance tests.”

Which brings us to Gervais’ most recent, Maine-made short film, “A Deer Is a Horse.” In it, a young man (actor Jon Frances) receives a phone call from a local “infusion center.” He’s blown off his appointment and, as we watch him take in the perfunctory message, his face is both blank and pained. He hangs up, and viewers imagine that “A Deer Is a Horse” is preparing to present a typical cancer story, with the protagonist facing up to the ominous reality of the phone call’s bland bit of schedule-keeping.

Instead, Gervais and his star give us … nothing. Or nothing we expect. Long shots trace the passing cars from the window of the man’s tiny apartment, the sight of the working Portland waterfront in the distance providing nothing but flat, cold isolation. He drinks, silently, both at home, and then at Blackstone’s, the locale of the venerable Portland gay bar providing the only context. He stands at water’s edge and smokes. He tears pages from a book, slowly and deliberately, as we try vainly to ferret out clues from the other books (Thoreau, Oscar Wilde, a nonfiction tome about believing survivors of sexual abuse) on his shelves. The movie ends.

At just 19 minutes, “A Deer Is a Horse” is, as Gervais hinted, an endurance test. I loved it.


Gervais, in a previous interview about his prankish experiment in faux documentary “Fragments,” expressed to me his love for experimental filmmakers like Chantal Akerman and James Benning, citing their utter unconcern with audience comfort in their long, languorously composed narratives. (He also reminisces fondly about his weekly trips to Portland’s late, great Videoport, where he rented such things, and we bonded over the surprising fact that I – the big hairy guy in Red Sox gear – had probably rented some of them to him.) Said Gervais of his appreciation for films the average moviegoer would fidget through impatiently, “They’re stories of nothing. There is no story, you’re just watching these people’s lives. Nothing is happening and probably nothing is going to happen. I remember renting those kinds of movies and thinking, ‘This is cool. I want to show stories like it.’”

And so “A Deer Is a Horse” is Akerman in miniature, which is challenging enough. Citing the recent death of his grandfather as inspiration for what story there is to be found in his film, Gervais explained, “I always wanted to show a film where the story has been told a thousand times, and just do it in a different way. Cancer gets Hollywoodized, and that pisses me off. I wanted to strip that away completely and show someone without that support system, pondering, not having anybody.”

Blackstone’s bar in Portland is one of the stops the man makes in the film.

Asked about the sparse clues I’d spotted to try and add context to the protagonist’s story, Gervais responded to my eager questions with the delight of a job well done. “I didn’t put any of those things in purposely,” Gervais said of the books, bits of set dressing and changes of scenery to which my viewer’s curiosity had tried to attach significance. “I wanted to just capture what’s there. It’s not about telling you anything, it’s about showing you what’s there. I like that it makes you contemplative – instead of me telling what this is about, it’s about you putting your own two and two together.”

Gervais even mentions his indecision about including the inciting phone call from “A Deer Is a Horse” altogether, something he eventually – and begrudgingly – decided against.

“I wanted to leave you thinking just that there’s something going on with this guy,” explained Gervais. “Just long takes with no music, just the sound around him. A sense of dread where you’re like, ‘What am I waiting for?’ That uncertainty. It’s about taking characters and putting them in this big atmosphere and not having anything happen. It creates a sense of dread because anything could happen.”

It’s a heady and challenging mix for the average moviegoer, something that Gervais admits might not be for everybody. Said Gervais, “We’re in this sort of ADD generation nowadays, but there’s a kind of a cycle of excitement I get from watching movies like Akerman’s. You go through a cycle as you watch it. First, it’s just ‘Oh, this is long.’ And then you ask, ‘ Are they really going to do this?’ Then, ‘Holy (expletive), this is crazy.’ And then you really look at it, and think, ‘This is incredible.’”


As noted previously, I got it. (I also shared a recommendation for Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film “Goodbye, Dragon Inn,” which is another favorite film about seemingly nothing, which I love.) As for “A Deer Is a Horse,” Gervais is currently submitting his short film on the festival circuit and is especially excited at the prospect of it being accepted to the appropriately named Slow Film Festival in England.

“There’s no real outlet for short films,” said Gervais. “I sent ‘Fragments’ out, and it got accepted here and there, but I have a bad habit of finishing something, sending it out, and then moving onto the next thing. I work 50 hours a week and have a teenage kid. I live a pretty private life. Basically I just keep to myself and make my weird movies.”

For more information about Gervais’ weird (and compelling) Maine-made movies, check out his website,

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his wife and cat.

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