Pauline Julien is one of Quebec’s superstars. Her name evokes reactions that go far beyond the usual kind of comment made about singers. Her outspoken political beliefs, her public acts of defiance, her imprisonment during the October 1970 Quebec crisis, have all helped create the myth of an enfant terrible. Talented, seductive, intense and impulsive, she has managed to charm and irritate more people than any other Quebec entertainer. Pauline Julien incarnates both the attractiveness and the aggravations that many English Canadians associate with French Canada.
The life she leads today has none of the overtones of glamour or paranoia that one might expect her to succumb to.
She lives in a simple flat in the centre of Montreal. Her phone number is listed under her name. Inside the flat there is no hint of chicness or preoccupation with “style.” The furniture is comfortable but neutral; one’s eyes glide over it to the masses of books piled everywhere, on shelves, in boxes, on the floor. Color and decoration come from the work of her children, from the work of artist friends, from the political posters and historical etchings that hang on the walls.
Pauline herself is the most vibrant note of color in the flat. The moment she arrives the place begins to vibrate. Shades are raised, windows opened to the street. The telephone begins to ring, and she pops in and out of rooms where voices answer her. Suddenly the flat is filled with life.
“When people talk to me of my reputation, my image,” she says, “I know that it exists but I don't feel that it has anything to do with me. I’ve always done what I wanted. What I had to do. I never think of myself as a public figure. In 1964, for example, when I refused to sing for the Queen, my gesture came out of a long personal evolution. Many other Quebeckers in my place would have done the same.”
Pauline’s long evolution began in Trois Rivières, where she was born into a middle-class family, the last of 11 children. It continued in Quebec and Montreal where she studied acting and dancing, supporting herself as a waitress and as an au pair girl. At 19, she went to Paris to continue her studies. She stayed there for eight years, and it was in France that her first professional and political breakthroughs occurred: “I was raised under Duplessis, in a very traditional atmosphere. It was only in Paris that I began to be politicized. Not to the Quebec situation but to oppression in general. When I returned, in 1960, I saw the changes that had taken place and I was ready to understand the political dilemma of Quebec. The same thing was happening to a lot of other people. It was a collective awakening.”
She returned to Quebec an accomplished and acclaimed artist. Her repertoire at the time included mostly the works of Bertolt Brecht and Boris Vian. Very quickly, however, she found herself drawn to the songs being written in Quebec. It was she who first popularized, both abroad and in Canada, the works of Gilles Vigneault, Georges Dor and others. Today she performs only Québécois songs. “In recent years I have found myself more and more comfortable with Québécois French, as opposed to Parisian French. It’s become an absolute need for me to sing Québécois songs. We have such a rich explosion of talent. A sense of social and political urgency has led artists to create works that seek out a national identity and probe our cultural roots. There’s no need for me to look for material elsewhere.”
Pauline’s new record, Au milieu de ma vie, peut-être à la veille de . . . (In the middle of my life, perhaps on the eve of . . .) is an impressive justification of her beliefs. The lyrics she sings have been written for her by some of Quebec’s finest writers: Réjean Ducharme, Michel Tremblay, Jean-Claude Germain. There are also several songs she wrote herself. They are revealing of the kind of intelligence, awareness and courage that are quickly perceived in a personal encounter. In these songs, the main themes of her life are clearly rendered: compassion, a strong political conscience, the refusal to live according to socially acceptable rules, and a constant and recurring faith in love.
It is interesting and characteristic of her that she has been able to reconcile an increasing attachment to the feminist struggle with her continuing faith in romantic love. She speaks of relations between men and women with the ardor of an adolescent girl. Not a contemporary adolescent, to be sure, but the kind that convent schools and “girls’ ” novels once bred. With Pauline, this attitude becomes another mark of her individuality. “It has taken me a long time to discover that some of my personal problems were common to all women in Quebec. You know, when I was a girl, a woman’s life was over at 40. To see someone over 40 skiing would have seemed ridiculous. Today we have gained another 10 years. But I would like to see it extended. Everyone should have the right to feel alive, to be loved as long as they live. I think women should stop being passive in love, nor should they be inhibited by age differences.
In her own life, Pauline is trying to work for the liberation of women, for Quebec independence, and for a socialist Quebec. But she has no illusions that the attainment of any one of these goals will necessarily bring about the realization of the other two. “We are still a timid people. Men are afraid of women and women wait for them to take the first step. Politically, it’s hard, too. People are afraid. There is a lot of repression. Yet when De Gaulle came here, and inhibitions and private interests were forgotten for a moment, it was as if Quebec answered with a unanimous cry. Change always occurs through a minority that pulls the rest along.”
The subject of her imprisonment during the War Measures Act comes up and retreats throughout our conversation. Yet she speaks of it with no discernible bitterness. “Being in prison for eight days is not the worst thing that can happen. It helped to radicalize me, as it did so many others. In any case, I feel that there may very well be worse repression here in the future. Of course, when I got out, it was very difficult for me to get work. People were afraid to hire me. In one school where I was supposed to sing, the director accused me of being a member of the FLQ. Slowly I picked up, however, especially after my success at Place des Arts in Montreal. Now, I’m working regularly.”
One moment Pauline Julien speaks of her enormous success during her last concert tour in France, the next, with equal enthusiasm, she is describing the political science, history and sociology courses she is taking at the University of Quebec in Montreal where, for the last four years, she has been a student. “I think of all that I want to do in the future, politically, as an artist, as a woman. There’s so much more that I must learn if I want to make any progress in these fields. For me, none of it is separate. Each one of these roles nourishes the others. How well will I succeed? I don’t know. In any case I’m too involved with the present to worry about the future.” ■
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