Worlds removed from the charred ghettos of Los Angeles, overlooking a slim strip of sand on the French Riviera, the 45th annual Cannes Film Festival (May 7 to 18) rolled out the red carpet to Hollywood. This year at Cannes, the world’s most important showcase for international film, the American presence was stronger than ever, causing many participants to lament the death of cinema.
The festival opened with an uncut version of the hit sex thriller Basic Instinct and closed with Far and Away, a wholesome adventure starring Tom Cruise as an Irish immigrant who discovers the American dream. But the movies attracting the most acclaim came from outside Hollywood. They ranged from Howards End, an elegant adaptation of E. M. Forster’s novel about British class war, to The Player, director Robert Altman’s devastating satire of the studio system. And perhaps the most audacious of all the entries came from Canada:
Léolo, a remarkable film by Quebec director Jean-Claude Lauzon.
Léolo is the first Canadian movie to be selected for official competition at Cannes since Denys Arcand’s Jesus of Montreal won a jury prize in 1989. Two other Canadian features were invited to Cannes this year, but not for competition. Both are from Montreal-based directors: Being at Home with Claude, Jean Beaudin’s searing adaptation of a play about a male prostitute who kills his lover in the heat of passion, and The Grocer’s Wife, John Pozer’s archly ironic drama (shot in black and white for a paltry $57,000) about a stripper and a smelter worker in Trail, B.C.
But Léolo was the most keenly anticipated of the Canadian films. It is Lauzon’s first movie since Night Zoo, a powerful thriller about a drug dealer and his dying father, which drew a standing ovation at Cannes five years ago— and went on to win 13 Genie awards. Léolo (which does not yet have a commercial release date) is not only a better movie than Night Zoo-,
it elevates Canadian cinema to new heights of creative ambition and achievement.
Ostensibly, Léolo is a semi-autobiographical story of a 12-year-old boy coming of age in east-end Montreal. But that is like describing James Joyce’s Ulysses as the tale of a man who spends a day wandering around Dublin. Lauzon flouts narrative convention with flamboyant
brilliance. Redefining the limits of personal film-making, he writes and directs with a selfassured intensity that recalls the European masters in their prime—such directors as Federico Fellini and François Truffaut. And he does it with a cast of unlikely stars: a small boy (Maxime Collin) and two Quebec performers, pop singer Ginette Reno and former nationalist leader Pierre Bourgault.
Comic, tragic, erotic, poetic and operatic, Léolo is an adult drama that plumbs the dark secrets of childhood. Léolo, a French-Canadian who wishes he were Italian, has a grandfather who tries to drown him, parents obsessed with defecation and an older brother consumed by
bodybuilding. Mixing dreamlike logic with vivid realism, the movie strikes a thrilling harmony between the sacred and the profane. It is propelled by a score that ranges from religious choral music to ballads by Tom Waits and the Rolling Stones. And it is filmed in the burnished hues of a Rembrandt painting. A breathtaking portrait of the artist as a young boy, Léolo is in every sense a masterpiece.
It is also provocative enough that, according to Lauzon, Cannes director Gilles Jacob programmed it at the end of the festival to minimize controversy. “Jacob predicted about a third of the penguins would walk out before the end,” Lauzon told Maclean ’s, referring to the black-tie patrons who attend the nightly premières at Cannes. “He told me he didn’t want a scandal.” Jacob, who opened his festival with the notorious Basic Instinct, apparently considered Léolo more threatening.
Lauzon agreed that the “penguins” might be
offended by a couple of scenes, one showing the movie’s young hero masturbating with a piece of liver in his pants, and another showing the cruel torture of a cat. The scenes are, however, more tastefully filmed than their literal description implies. “This is really a movie on the edge,” said Lauzon. “And if we hadn’t taken the time to film it properly, with the right music and ambience, it could have been really crass and ugly.”
Interviewed over breakfast in Montreal shortly before leaving for Cannes, the 38-yearold maverick talked about his movie, his frustrations with French Canada, his rejection of offers to direct Hollywood features—and his
original bid to make Léolo in English with help from Canadian film-maker Norman Jewison. But most of all, he talked about his desire to continue doing exactly what he wants. “My freedom is so important,” said the unmarried Lauzon, who is a licensed pilot, a diver, a motorcycle enthusiast and a hunter who uses a bow and arrow. “There are so many things that interest me more in life than films.”
Because Lauzon makes a good living as a director of television commercials, he says that he feels no pressure to compromise his freedom in making movies. After the success of Night Zoo, he turned down numerous offers. “A Hollywood producer asked me to do a film with a big-name star,” Lauzon recalled. “He said, ‘Nobody knows you here—start with a little film, and then you’ll be able to make bigger films.’ And I said to him, ‘I don’t want to make a little pile of shit to be able to make a big pile of shit.’ ”
Early last year, Jewison asked Lauzon to direct The Main, a police thriller to be shot in Montreal, possibly with Gene Hackman. Jewison sent him the script, and Lauzon sent Jewison the script for Léolo, hoping that he might help produce it in English. Later, Jewison summoned Lauzon to his Toronto office to discuss The Main.
Lauzon says that he told him, “I’m sure this is an idiot test you sent me, that the little French-Canadian will be so impressed he’ll say it’s a good script. But we both know it’s a piece of shit.” Lauzon then pulled out his Léolo script and said: “Norman, did you read this? This is f--king cinema!”
Jewison declined to get involved with Léolo. “I admire his talent,” he told Maclean’s, “but it’s very hard to raise funds for a Québécois film—and I discouraged him from making it in English.” Lauzon, however, maintains that Jewison was scared off by the material. “I really like Norman,” he said, “but he has a hard time with movies that can’t play on airplanes.”
Jewison laughed off the jab: “That’s a snotty thing for him to say. I make populist art. I don’t consider myself a pure artist, and I guess he does. Still, he’s pretty commercial, or he wouldn’t be sitting at Cannes—he’s the one at Cannes, not me.”
Lauzon’s insolence reflects a rough-andtumble upbringing in Montreal’s east end. Various members of his family, like the characters in Léolo, were hospitalized for mental illness, including his father, a laborer with a Grade 2 education who died in 1982. Lauzon himself dropped out of school at 16. He has since worked as a factory laborer, tobacco picker, tree pruner, taxi driver, fishing guide, scuba diver and bush pilot.
But in the late 1970s, Lauzon resumed his education, earning a BA in communications at the University of Quebec in Montreal and studying at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. After making two award-winning
shorts, he began producing commercials, then wrote and directed Night Zoo—a movie that echoed his experience in an underworld of street hustlers and drug dealers.
Despite his formal training in film, Lauzon rails against the conventions of his craft. “What I hate about so many films,” he said, “is that 30 per cent of the scenes are there just to make the transition to the next one. I hate these sequences where people say, ‘Let’s go to San Francisco,’ and then you see them getting into the car.” Lauzon also rejects the industry practice of pitching unwritten scripts with capsule summaries—a ritual savagely parodied in The Player. “If I could summarize a movie idea in a five-line synopsis,” said Lauzon, “I might as well make a 30-second commercial with it.
When I write a film, I don’t have a structure. If it’s a serious creative process, you don’t even know where you’re going.”
Lauzon, however, has no patience for filmmakers who whine about producers messing with their creativity. “I can’t stand these young directors who say, ‘They cut my film,’ ” he said. “Take a shotgun and shoot them—it’s your responsibility.” Added Lauzon: “It’s really hard everywhere for any director who wants to say something different. But it’s easier in Canada than in a lot of places. It’s an amazing country where people like me can have $5 million to say what they want.” (Léolo is a $5million government-supported co-production between Canada and France.)
When pressed, Lauzon says that he would rather be called a Canadian director than a Quebec director. Although he declines to discuss politics, fearing that his opinions might
overshadow his art, he is clearly disturbed by the current political climate in Quebec. “When I go to Toronto, I’m always well treated,” said Lauzon. “People there dream about having a strong culture. Here [in Quebec] it’s like rust, it’s everywhere. And nobody gives you any encouragement.” Added Lauzon: “If I stay in Quebec, it’s only because I’m lazy.”
Lauzon had originally hoped to shoot Léolo in English, although that is hard to imagine now. The movie is unmistakably Québécois, right from the whimsical opening scene, in which Léolo claims that he is not a French-Canadian but an Italian conceived by some stray sperm carried to Canada on a Sicilian tomato. Lauzon began writing the script while attending a film festival in Taormina, Sicily. There, he felt insanely jealous of Italian culture, he recalled. “I was so angry to realize I’m a Québécois,” Lauzon said, “with no past, no history, just two cans of maple syrup.”
Some Quebecers who have seen Léolo are interpreting it as “a big political statement,” Lauzon added. The lead character’s brother, Fernand (Yves Montmarquette), becomes a bodybuilder after getting beaten up by an Anglo punk. “With the referendum coming, people think that’s political,” said Lauzon. “Well, it’s not, because the guy who beats him up was not supposed to be English. I couldn’t find the right FrenchCanadian actor to do it.”
Even the casting of Bourgault, a political icon, was apolitical, he insists. Lauzon says that he cast Bourgault, one of his professors at university, in the supporting role “because I was looking for a charismatic image.” Lauzon says that, unlike his colleague Denys Arcand, he is not an intellectual—he works by instinct. “I feel like an antenna,” he said. “I watch TV. I walk down the street. I see things. I’m like a painter.” But, by osmosis, his work may contain political implications that he never intended. It is, after all, the story of a French-Canadian from a dysfunctional family who passionately denies his birthright and seeks a poetic escape.
At Léolo’s première last Sunday in Cannes, a poetic French-Canadian from a dysfunctional family climbed the red-carpeted staircase that leads into the Palais des Festivals. But even before leaving for Cannes, Lauzon seemed more excited about flying to Alaska for a summer fishing trip. “I need to always be in motion,” he said. “When I’m riding my Harley south or flying my airplane north, it’s the only place I don’t have anxiety. If I stop, I feel I should be writing. Writing is very painful for me.” He added: “When I was making Léolo, it was with the conviction that if I wasn’t making it, I would die.” For Jean-Claude Lauzon, an artist flying in the face of conformism, the movies offer no escape.
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