Living a stone’s throw from Canada, I’ve been fortunate to catch a slow but steady stream of Quebecois cinema over the years. I’m amazed by the obscurity, in America, of even the greatest figures of Quebecois film history: Michel Brault, Claude Jutra, Pierre Perrault, Gilles Groulx, etc. In fact, even in English Canada, their work is not ubiquitous; I’m not exactly sure why. I wouldn’t be surprised if it had something to do with underlying Anglophone/Francophone tensions and Quebec’s vigorous sense of identity—distinct from its identity as simply another Canadian province—but these are just casual suspicions.
So, what I’ve done here is throw together a small and highly personal collection of strong Quebecois cinema I’ve had the fortune to discover over the years.
But first, some film-historical background, in broad strokes. Cinema in Quebec was influenced and shaped, in the mid-1950’s, by one crucially important factor: pioneering innovations in cinéma vérité documentary filmmaking that occurred at the state-supported National Film Board (NFB). When the NFB headquarters moved from Ottawa, Ontario to Montreal, Quebec in ’56, it opened the door for greater involvement by local filmmakers.
The 15-minute Les Raquetteurs (1958), by Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx, is a key film. It documents a snowshoe festival in rural Quebec, and is generally considered to be the first work of le direct (“direct cinema”). It had no pre-planned script, used no voiceover narration and captured real events as they played out, with minimum intervention. (Now, I’m not exactly sure how “direct cinema” differs from “cinéma vérité,” although I also suspect these terms don’t have locked-down, universally agreed-upon definitions.) The film’s images consist mainly of: villagers, the wintry Canadian landscape, the performance of traditional rituals.
Then, Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault traveled to a rural community on the Gulf of St. Lawrence to make Pour La Suite Du Monde (1962), which became the first Canadian film to compete at Cannes. They persuaded the village inhabitants to resurrect the old practice of hunting the Beluga whale by using a trap of tall wooden staffs placed in the shallows of the river. The film lyrically documents the ways of work—and ways of leisure—of this rustic community. A note: the title of the film translates as “So That The World Goes On,” but the English-subtitled version is sometimes known as The Moontrap.
Jean Rouch springs to mind when we think of cinéma vérité but it is little known that Michel Brault traveled to France to initiate Rouch into the uses of new cameras and camera/sound technologies in the late 50’s, and worked on Rouch and Morin’s Chronicle of a Summer (1961). I found this generous quote from Rouch: “All that we’ve done in France in the area of cinéma vérité came from the National Film Board. It was Brault who brought a new technique of shooting that we hadn’t known and that we have copied ever since.” There is also an interesting Canadian documentary called Cinéma Vérité: Defining The Moment (1999) by Peter Wintonick—he also made Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky—that traces the development of the movement and Canada’s role in it. I’m not sure it’s on DVD but it has aired on cable. It interviews numerous key players (including Brault, Rouch, Perrault, Richard Leacock, Bob Drew, etc) and is well worth a look.
Chris Gehman: “Brault’s documentary style is at once an affirmation of and a rebuke to theorists of cinéma vérité: While his approach to the documentary is anti-literary and emphasizes the unscripted gathering of film and sound images, to be given their finished form in the editing process, his shooting style opposes the notion of the documentary as a form of surreptitious surveillance put forward by theorists such as Dziga Vertov, who emphasized the importance of “life caught unawares.” For Brault, this approach, perhaps voyeuristic and indicative of veiled aggression, is characterized by the use of the telephoto lens, which allows a camera operator to photograph a subject from a distance and without the subject’s knowledge. Brault’s documentary camerawork, in contrast, is a distinctly “wide-angle” style, putting the camera operator in close proximity to his subjects, not separate from but within the action, and it is this style, derived from a strongly-held ethical position, that makes his contribution so distinctive.”
More good Brault. Les Ordres (1974), which won Best Director at Cannes, is a political docudrama that deals with the fate of five characters—composites of actual people—following their arrests when the War Measures Act was implemented in Quebec during the October Crisis of 1970. Civil rights were suspended in Quebec during this period, and many innocent people were arrested and held without being charged. The film tracks the characters without painting a detailed picture of the sociopolitical context of the time, which makes it both inescapably specific—especially for Canadians who could not help but be acutely aware of the period the film documents—and also universal.
Brault always wore two hats: he was both a director and a reputed cinematographer. He shot Francis Mankiewicz’s Les Bons Débarras (1980), a Quebecois backwoods Gothic tale about a thirteen-year-old girl who is obsessed with Wuthering Heights, idolizes her mother, and is intensely jealous of her mother’s lovers. A dark tale set against a palpably powerful backdrop of Quebecois specificities, this is among my favorite Canadian films.
Claude Jutra is something of a Canadian legend. He also got his start at NFB with Brault and Groulx, and made his first feature, the autobiographical and controversial À Tout Prendre, in 1964. It was ostensibly a fiction film, but made with documentary-like methods. Good portions of it were unscripted, and he cast himself and his ex-girlfriend Johanne Harrelle. Both Jutra and the character he played disclosed their bisexuality in the course of the film. The film is set in Montreal’s bohemian/art world and Jutra’s character was, self-excoriatingly, not very sympathetic. (Johanne Harrelle later married Edgar Morin.)
Jutra’s masterpiece is Mon Oncle Antoine (1971). In polls of Canada’s film critics, it has been repeatedly voted as the greatest Canadian film ever made. A coming-of-age story set in the asbestos region of rural Quebec, it’s one of the few films mentioned in this post that’s actually available here on DVD. In 1986, at the age of 56, Jutra disappeared. His body was found five months later in the St. Lawrence River with a note in his pocket which said simply, “Je suis Claude Jutra.” He had been suffering early symptoms of Alzheimer’s at the time, and was also having great difficulty obtaining financing for his films.
You can walk into the NFB Mediatheque on John St. in Toronto, plunk down a toonie, and choose from a menu of hundreds of films. On a recent visit, I took in Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat Dans Le Sac (1964) (“The Cat In The Bag”). One of the earliest and most important films of the Quebec New Wave, it’s also a bit uncanny. The black-and-white cinematography, documentary immediacy, and the intellectually heady conversations in French automatically evoke Godard and his films of that period, like Vivre Sa Vie. But below these surface similarities, the political and cultural realities are all Quebec. The film is about the relationship between a Francophone Quebecois intellectual and an Anglophone Jewish actress, and the rapidly growing gulf between them. It’s set both in Montreal and in the Quebec countryside, and is memorably shot in an almost painfully intimate, vérité-style.
In high school, I had a raging crush on Genevieve Bujold after seeing her in the medical thriller Coma. (Ah, that impossibly melodious accent!) Who can forget her in Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Alan Rudolph’s Choose Me, Brian De Palma’s Obsession, Alain Resnais’ La Guerre est Finie….? But her strongest work is arguably in her ex-husband Paul Almond’s moody, fantastical trilogy Isabel (1968), Act of the Heart (1970), and Journey (1972). The middle film also stars Donald Sutherland, and I’ve seen it quietly pop up on late-night cable.
Bujold was also in Brault’s 1967 film Entre La Mer Et L’Eau Douce, which was restored and shown at TIFF ’04. Along with Hou’s Café Lumiere and Denis’ The Intruder, it was a festival stand-out for me that year, but it received not even a fraction of the ink spilled on those films. Is it my imagination or do older films get little respect, in terms of press coverage, during a film festival…?
I haven’t touched on Denys Arcand because he is already very well known outside Canada. Moreover, it’s been a good 15 years since I saw the only two Arcand films I know, Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989), and I don’t remember them very well. I’ve been meaning to revisit Arcand; I’ve also heard that some of his earlier work, unavailable here, is worth seeking out.
Some Qubecois filmmakers I’d like to hunt down and check out: Jean-Pierre Lefebvre; Léa Pool; Anne Claire Poirier; Jean-Claude Lauzon; Gilles Carle. Also, save the experimental animator Pierre Hébert, I haven’t had the chance to see any avant-garde cinema from Quebec….
So, what are some of your favorites in Quebecois movies? Or films and makers you’ve been curious about but haven’t had a chance to check out? Perhaps we can use this place as a little reservoir of Quebecois cinema suggestions and ideas….
The doodle is a small tip of the chapeau to Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault’s “Pour La Suite Du Monde” (1962).