Okay, it did seem like a strange place to be discovering one’s true calling—a cramped, cluttered and darkened cubbyhole of a cutting room in a seedy, battered office building on the wrong side of Montreal. But on the tiny, flickering screen of the editing table in the corner, actress-turned-director Micheline Lanctôt was watching her first film, L’homme à tout faire (The Handyman), come to life. She paced. She peered. She puffed ferociously on French cigarettes. She owes a lot to her Norman heritage: her sturdy build, a feisty, straight-talking personality and square-jawed, open-browed, freshfaced good looks. Plonking one foot on the seat of an empty chair, she stared at the screen. Then, in the throaty baritone that kept her out of ingenue parts, she wondered aloud when to cut: just before the flicker of star Jocelyn Berubé’s eyebrow, or just after—which would be subtler? So once around the room for opinions: to the editor, her assistant, the script assistant. Keep the flicker. Pleased as punch, Lanctôt seals its fate. It stays off the cutting-room floor.
Having the last word in a film is a brand-new experience for Micheline Lanctôt. As an actress the end result of her work had always been in the hands of others and, at age 32, that was beginning to rankle. With directors like Gilles Carle and Ted Kotcheff, in films like La vraie nature de Bernadette and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, the collaboration had been fruitful and the resulting performances superb. But films like those are few and far between, and Lanctôt’s questioning, probing style of acting made some film-makers nervous. “All I ever did was ask questions,” she says wonderingly. “I can’t just go out there and do as I’m told. I have to know why I’m doing it.” But L’homme à tout faire is hardly an “I’ll-show-them-all” project. When she first brought the script she had written to producer René Malo, she had no burning ambition to direct it as well. It was, after all, a first script, a first film. With a budget of $577,000 (hefty for a Québécois film; huge for a first film) there was the real danger of biting off more than she could safely chew. And Lanctôt had other reservations: “I didn’t think I had the discipline. I gave up music [she studied piano for 11 years, aimed to conduct] because I didn’t want to spend eight hours a day practising. I got bored with animation [at the NFB,
free-lance in Montreal and Los Angeles] because it took forever. And as an actress, the waiting around between takes drove me crazy. I really thought I was too scatterbrained to be a director.” It was Malo who suggested, indeed pressed her to direct: “A lot of what I liked about the script, the poetry, the tendresse populaire, was between the lines. I couldn’t think of anyone who could bring it out better than Micheline.”
While Malo found Dostoevskian poetry in the story of a handyman desperately in love with the very idea of love trailing after a hard-hearted housewife, film-financing institutions in Montreal were a little baffled by the project. It was rejected by both the Institut Québécois du Cinéma and the Canadian Film Development Corporation on first reading. With an additional 30 pages of notes and explanations of some of the script’s subtleties, both institutions felt comfortable enough to put up money ($160,000 and $190,000 respectively) but the CFDC balked at the idea of Lanctôt
directing. After much discussion, a compromise was found. Ted Kotcheff, the man in her life since The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz and a man with a golden glow in Hollywood (North Dallas Forty), volunteered to act as a counsellor and guarantor.
Lanctôt found the whole process hard to swallow: “I was completely prepared to make compromises, but it’s humiliating to have your script judged by some anonymous panel—and even more so when you have to explain it to them. A
lot of people read film scripts, they don’t see them. And while Ted gave me a lot of good advice, it galls me that he was a sine qua non.” She then gets to the heart of the frustration: ‘T know people are going to say I didn’t do it alone. I know they’re going to say that.”
Not that she’ll lose too much sleep over what other people think—that would be entirely out of character. The black-sheep daughter of an old (her ancestors arrived in 1629) and comfort-
ably bourgeois family, she’s contemptuous of her upbringing among the stately homes of Outremont. “I hate where I come from,” she says tersely. Deliberately vulgarizing her language, dress and manners, she “grew up with other upper-middle-class delinquents.” The family took a deep breath when she took up acting as a career, and gasped when she became the first Lanctôt woman to live with a man without benefit of clergy. A bit of a tomboy as a youngster, she has grown into a woman who says she has more satisfying relationships with men than with women. “Relationships with women happen within set boundaries,” she’ll say, attempting to clarify something that obviously bewilders her. “Women huddle together too much. I want to learn new things.” It irritates some women, leaving them feeling slighted in her company. Some men are intimidated by her interest. “She’s very, very honest,” says good friend Marie Théberge. “She has no fear of giving opinions, and will give them to your face. I admire that; it hurts others.”
Settling down to make her own film seems to have been a turning point for Micheline Lanctôt. She’s calmer, more confident and gives every indication of having found her true vocation. “I don’t think she’s mellowed as much as channelled her energy into something where she has much more control,” says Andrée Pelletier, the film’s leading lady. Lanctôt acknowledges the change: “It’s true. I am calmer. I’m not sure if it’s the film or a long maturing process ending with the film. I was always content before to think of myself as unambitious. I always put relationships before work. Now I find that my work is extremely important to me. On the other hand, I realized halfway through the film that Armand Dorion, the hero of the film, is really me . . . someone who’ll go to any lengths for love, to stay in that sublime state. It’s the great irony of my life.” Doubly ironic when you realize that her commitment to making this film meant parting company with Ted Kotcheff. It was a case of two careers with different philosophies, in different cities, pulling in different directions.
There’s little doubt in the minds of those who know her that she will make more films. A couple of weeks after the flicker of Jocelyn Berubé’s eyebrow was saved from the cutting-room floor, Micheline Lanctôt has screened the rough cut of the film. “I can’t objectively say whether it’s good or not, but I like it,” she smiles. “It’s a panegyric to love, being in love with life and the world around you. And if a film is made with love, it’ll show up on the screen.”
How can she be sure?
“The script assistant cried three times during the screening. That’s a good sign.”
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