FILM

A festival zeros in on Quebec

Robert Lepage re-examines the October Crisis in his new feature

Brian D. Johnson September 7 1998
FILM

A festival zeros in on Quebec

Robert Lepage re-examines the October Crisis in his new feature

Brian D. Johnson September 7 1998

A festival zeros in on Quebec

FILM

Brian D. Johnson

Robert Lepage re-examines the October Crisis in his new feature

It was October, 1970, the height of the FLQ kidnapping crisis. Pierre Trudeau had invoked the War Measures Act, tanks rolled through the streets of Montreal, and in Quebec City a 12-year-old paper-boy named Robert Lepage was spreading the news. Along his route, which included the homes of several prominent politicians, he suddenly found himself being treated as a potential terrorist. Outside the house of thenretired Quebec premier Jean

Lesage, an armed soldier in full camouflage gear intercepted the young paper-boy and searched his bag. “Imagine,” says Lepage. “You’re 12 years old and you see this guy with branches and leaves sticking out of his helmet. It was fall in Quebec City and there wasn’t a single leaf remaining on the trees. It was a bit absurd.” The paper-boy is now one of Canada’s most eminent directors. Last week, at the opening of the 22nd annual Montreal World Film Festival, Lepage unveiled his new movie, Nô, a farce that dares to poke fun at the October Crisis. And among those laughing and applauding in the black-tie audience was Trudeau. In fact, the former prime minister makes an unwitting cameo in the film, via that famous 1970 news clip of him saying “Just watch me” when a reporter asked how far he would go in battling the FLQ. Ironically, at the première Trudeau ended up sitting right behind Quebec’s separatist culture minister, Louise Beaudoin. “Now, I’m an actor in retirement,” he told her. After the screening, Maclean’s asked what he thought of his limited “role” in the movie. Trudeau’s droll reply: “I didn’t get much time to rehearse.” Although there were no Hollywood stars on display, the choice of Lepage’s film to open the Montreal festival provided the event with a much-needed sense of occasion—and renewed local relevance. It was just the second time in the past decade that the festival has opened with a Canadian film.

Over the years, it has lost the premières of several major Quebec movies—including Lepage’s debut feature, Le Confessionnal (1995)—to the more high-profile Toronto International Film Festival. But this year, Montreal has four Quebec entries—more than ever before—among the 24 features in official competition. For the first time since 1987, it has a Canadian, actress Monique Mercure, chairing the jury. And Lepage’s Nô, an anti-colonial farce

steeped in Quebec references, gave the local audiences reason to cheer. “I made my first film for the producers,” Lepage told the crowd at the première. “I made the second [1996’s Le Polygraphe] for the critics. This one I made for the people.” For Lepage, who spends his life touring the globe with audacious productions of opera and theatre, Nô marks a homecoming of sorts. Based on a thin slice of Lepage’s epic, seven-hour Hiroshima play Seven Streams of the River Ota, it is a brisk, playful confection without the arty, soul-searching rigor of Le Confessionnal and Le Polygraphe. Those were international co-productions that cost about $4 million apiece. Locally produced for less than $1 million, and shot in Quebec City in just 17 days, Nô has a refreshing, slapdash charm. “It felt like a first feature,” says Lepage. During an interview in Montreal last week, he agreed that the film may not play well outside Quebec. “But it was great to have complete artistic control,” he adds, “not having some co-producer say, This won’t be understood,’ and not having to censor your slang or your accent.” Lepage, 40, tends to treat his career as a work in progress. And recently it has hit some bumps. Critics slammed this spring’s Toronto première of his play Geometry of Miracles, which is now successfully touring Europe, and Elsinore (1996), his one-man Hamlet, was a disaster. Now, he concedes that Geometry “wasn’t ready to show in

Toronto,” and Elsinore “wasn’t a good show, period.” Lepage adds that an inflated co-production budget turned his film Le Polygraphe into “this contrived thing.” And, anticipating criticism of Ao, he says he was relieved when it was rejected by festivals in Cannes and Venice, and even thought it would be “suicidal” to accord such a threadbare production the opening spot in Montreal. But it turned out to be a crowd-pleaser. Ad’s story concerns a flighty Montreal actress named Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux) who is stuck playing a maid in a classical French farce staged in the Canada pavilion at the 1970 Expo in Osaka, Japan. As she tries to terminate an affair with an actor, Sophie gets tangled up in her own offstage farce—over sushi with a starstruck Canadian diplomat and his snobbish wife. Mean-

while, as Sophie frets over an unplanned pregnancy, the comedy flips between Osaka and a hilarious subplot in Montreal, where Sophie’s boyfriend, Michel (Alexis Martin), is trying to plant a bomb with a bungling group of FLQ terrorists.

By satirizing the ineptitude of the FLQ, Lepage has stepped on sacred ground in separatist circles. And the film has already provoked controversy. “A lot of people have their doubts about whether we can make fun of the October Crisis,” says Lepage, who supports Quebec sovereignty. “But we’re not making fun of it, we’re just presenting the comical aspects, and we’re a mature enough society to do that. There was something maladroit in this crisis, and that’s what I tried to express, without mocking the political ideals of the time—ideals that I still share today.”

The title of Nô refers to a traditional form of Japanese theatre with masks. It also alludes to the No vote that dashed sovereigntist dreams in the past two Quebec referendums. The movie includes a cleverly

nuanced scene of Sophie and Michel watching the 1980 vote, and wanly discussing the faint hope—50.5 per cent, at best—of having a country.

Lepage’s film taps the comic insecurity behind the various masks that Quebec presents to the world. But if the province’s cinema is any indication, its self-image is thriving. Half a dozen new Quebec movies are being released this fall, according to veteran Montreal producer Roger Frappier, whose own roster includes Manon Briand’s 2 Seconds, about a woman forced to retire from the reckless sport of mountain-bike racing. It is entered in the festival competition, along with two other Quebec feature debuts: You Can Thank Me Later, a tale of family dysfunction, and Hathi, the story of an elephant trainer in India.

Despite this year’s stronger Quebec presence, the Montreal festival continues to pride itself on its international diversity. Running from Aug. 27 to Sept. 7, it will screen 400 films from 60 countries. And it has always

had a strong European presence—this year French actress Nathalie Baye officially opened the event. For sheer quantity of titles, Montreal can claim to be the continent’s largest film festival. With a relaxed ambience that includes nightly outdoor screenings, it is still very popular—and it attracts such regulars as director Brian De Palma, who quietly slipped into town last week just to watch movies. The Toronto festival, which begins on Sept. 10, offers 311 films from 53 countries. But as a focus of international media and industry attention, it has long since overtaken Montreal. Although their rivalry is by now a tired issue, Serge Losique, who has ruled the Montreal festival as a fiefdom since its 1976 inception, occasionally stirs it up by dismissing Toronto as a Hollywood-dominated event. Losique’s own attempts to snag Hollywood premières, however, tend to diminish his argument.

This year, his program includes several American movies on the cusp of commercial release, including Slums of Beverly Hills, Why Do Fools Fall in Love? and How Stella Got Her Groove Back. The festival also premièred Disney’s Simon Birch, adapted from author John Irving’s 1989 novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. Featuring Jim Carrey as a narrator remembering his childhood, it is a syrupy drama about a compassionate teenager and his tiny best friend—a boy whose growth has been severely stunted and who is convinced that God has chosen him to be a hero. Aside from changing the name of its title character, the movie makes some weird changes to the book—including a school bus crash that could have been swiped from Atom Egoyan’s The Sweet Hereafter. But as the puckish hero, child actor Ian Michael Smith makes an unforgettable impression.

Other notable items on the Montreal program include Jerry and Tom, a black comedy that marks Canadian actor Saul Rubinek’s feature directing debut. The story, a fanciful tale of hit men who work as used-car dealers, strains a bit at the seams. But Rubinek has assembled a superb cast of character actors, led by Joe Mantegna, Charles Durning and Maury Chaykin. And as an extended series of deadpan bits, the movie goes down like a bar-mix blend of Fargo and Goodfellas. Rubinek was not planning to show up at his Montreal première, but is due to attend the screening at the Toronto festival.

Losique, meanwhile, has gone to bizarre lengths to give his festival a transfusion of star power: it is honoring actress Sandra Bullock with a special tribute. It would be tempting to ask the festival’s director about the rare contribution that the star of Speed and Hope Floats has made to world cinema. But Losique declined to talk to Maclean’s about any aspect of the festival, offering only to provide a written statement in response to a written question. Even Pierre Trudeau was more approachable.

PHILL SNEL