FILMS

A melancholy view of Quebec corruption

JOHN HOFSESS January 1 1974
FILMS

A melancholy view of Quebec corruption

JOHN HOFSESS January 1 1974

A melancholy view of Quebec corruption

FILMS

JOHN HOFSESS

As a study of political corruption in Quebec, Rejeanne Padovani is a damning indictment. Unfortunately its strength is also its weakness. In movies, one should never stick to the truth when the truth is drab. Director Denys Arcand apparently depends on the film’s moral importance to outweigh any objection one may have otherwise to this low-key, slow, somewhat rambling story about a millionaire kingpin in public works who arranges to have his wife murdered when she returns to his life after a long affair. I found the film to be as exciting as a bowl of cold porridge; there is, no doubt, some sound nourishment here but not much flavor or enticing style. It’s questionable whether one can make a low-budget film about rich people (the main set, the home of Vincent Padovani, has a lot of Selig imitation-leather chairs and Contempra telephones; the overall color is chocolate brown. It’s not only monotonously tasteless, it’s unconvincing as the home of a multimillionnaire.). Rejeanne Padovani is a politically serious film, but its political awareness is that of a morally earnest adolescent. When I asked, last month, concerning Costa-Gavras’s State Of Siege, “Why is it no Canadian film director has created a film as powerful and important as this?” I should have added a speculative answer. State Of Siege is made with the knowledge that there are at least two sides to most social issues and the film is imbued with the melancholy of understanding both sides. A film such as Rejeanne Padovani (and it is typical of Québécois thought) knows only one-sidedness and knows it narrowly. Every member of the Padovani household is something of a joyless creep. The film depicts a world in which women use their sex for material gain (they have no other attributes, no other ideas) and men use hired goons with guns to work their will — to get rid of an old wife or beat up a group of young demonstrators. Seen from the outside, by a careless observer, one moreover who has an ideological axe to grind, that’s the way life among people of power and property may seem. Even if they are guilty of the crimes which Arcand accuses them of committing, there is more to them than he depicts on film. What Arcand would apparently find difficult to comprehend is that Rejeanne Radovan! is not itself untouched by corruption; it oversimplifies, it does not probe sympathetically, it has no interest in complex truths, or moral ambiguities. The film deserves a minimal respect because it is one of a very few Canadian films that’s actually about something important in modern society: a sophomoric view of evil is probably better than no view at all.

Papillon

At the age of 60, Henri Charrière wrote his first book, Papillon (The Butterfly). It became an international sensation, selling millions of copies.

Convicted in Paris in 1931 for a murder he had not committed Charrière was sentenced to life imprisonment in the penal colony of French Guiana. He was 25. He spent the rest of his life defying his captors, his false accusers and judges.

Forty-two days after his first stretch of imprisonment, he made his first escape, traveling 1,500 miles on the open sea in a tiny raft. He was recaptured by French authorities in Colombia, and sentenced to two years’ solitary confinement in a small, windowless, concrete tomb, where he kept his sanity only through dogged will. No one spoke to him, not even the guards. His meals consisted of thin, meatless gruel, a diet calculated to make any man suffer the ravages and dementia of scurvy. When released from this “extra punishment” Charrière could scarcely see or walk. He was one of very few even to survive the brutalizing treatment.

After eight more attempted escapes, cunning, courageous nearmisses, he was sent to Devil’s Island from which no one, except in fiction, had ever escaped. He did, on a makeshift raft of coconut-filled sacks, drifting for 40 hours under a searing, blistering sun. His book, and now the film version directed by Franklin J. Schaffner {Patton), is an important testament about a life so heroic it seems to belong more to an Homeric epic than a 20th-century story.

Everything is here: the horror of the penal barracks, the stench of despair, the sound of the whip on human flesh, of the pistol butt on human heads; the vastness of the open sea and the smallness of man, and the chronicle of a man who wouldn’t give up. If the film has one fault it is that of casting. Steve McQueen has so often portrayed fictional men of action that his presence in Papillon makes the story seem untrue, or, at the very least, less of an exception than it really is. There is nothing wrong with his acting as such, indeed Papillon is likely to be his best role and the film that gives him a deserved notch in film history; nevertheless while the performances of Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman protect the commercial prospects of the film at the box office, they reduce the uniqueness of Charrière’s life. We are reminded at every turn that this is a big, expensive, Hollywood movie, with familiar faces and popular stars. Charrière’s book has been treated well; the only falsification that has crept in is a subtle and unintentional one, he now has too much glamour.

The Sting

For many couples the question is, what film is worth the price of a baby-sitter, a bad-weather drive and an evening’s parking, a hefty admission charge of six dollars or more, plus an after-show snack at inflated prices? It costs so much to go to movies these days a mistake in judgment can be thoroughly depressing. The Sting is not only good news, it’s terrifically good news. It reunites director George Roy Hill and actors Paul Newman and Robert Redford in a film that far surpasses their previous hit Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid (1969) in solid entertainment value. The Sting is so funny, so charming and diverting, it’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that could be offered to the public with a money-back guarantee of pleasure.

It’s a playful movie, a nice romp, set in Chicago in the 1930s, about two con-artists (Newman and Redford) who are out to pull the “big con” of a lifetime: swindling two million dollars from a shrewd and vicious New York gangster boss (portrayed by Robert Shaw) partly for revenge, because he killed a friend theirs, but mainly for the sport of it, for the test of wits and nerve. The film has a snakier plot (and a jolting surprise ending) than an Agatha Christie thriller, and any reviewer who divulges too much deserves some lumps of coal in the old Christmas stocking. The film enjoys conning the audience, just as its central characters do in setting up a mark, and it never claims to be anything other than a tall story, well told, made and acted by people who love movies, and love to give audiences a good time.

Like another Universal release earlier this year, Day Of The Jackal, The Sting is first-rate entertainment. It takes great skill to make a film with such professional polish, but the most attractive quality of this movie is an elusive, hard-to-name feeling it induces. It’s a friendly movie, there’s a good rapport among the cast and a tonic, upbeat mood. It will brighten up your life, for a day or two, or at the very least if you’re a stonyhearted misanthrope, for an hour or two.

The New Land

This second part of Swedish director Jan Troell’s epic film study of frontier America {The Emigrants, the first half, was released last Christmas and proved to be one of the most popular art films in many years) is definitely one of the 10 best films of 1973. There is only one possible fault. Many of the films I recommend — Cries And Whispers, Kamouraska, State Of Siege, O Lucky Man! among others — are, as certain readers complain, somewhat on the emotionally chilly side. The New Land is a beautiful film, and at two and three-quarter hours, a comprehensive experience, but no one I daresay will call it moving or passionate. The films that see the furthest, the deepest into life are always “cold” visions, have found; maybe it’s because they have a mind behind them, instead the usual ragbag of tear ducts, mammillary glands and testicles. The new land is Minnesota, 1852. Karl Oskar Nilsson and his wife Kristina (portrayed by Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann) arrive with no money, and face a long winter. “One day our children will thank us for coming to America,” he tells her. They spend their first winter sustained more by hope than food. In the spring, Karl Oskar’s younger brother Robert takes off for California because “in America everyone is his own boss.” He’s heard of the legends of gold. He’s 18, and that’s that.

Season by season, year by year, the film portrays the vicissitudes and joys of pioneer life. One understands the necessity of having large families, simply for odds of survival. The New Land is a film filled with original touches and intelligent insights, into the hardy, heroic families who built the foundations of Canada and the United States a century ago. Few of their dreams are realized. Robert returns from California ravaged by yellow-jack fever, with a pocketful of worthless money. Kristina dies at the age of 37, due to complications that set in after a miscarriage. By the time Karl dies, none of his children speak Swedish, and are unable to inform relatives or friends in the “old country” that he has died. Another family is wiped out by Sioux Indians, down to the smallest child. If there is a lot of death here, there’s also a lot of life. The New Land i§ about whole lifetimes and all that can befall people from birth to death, in need or comfort, sickness or health, love or loneliness. It leaves one in a contemplative mood. The acting, photography, sparing use of dialogue and music, editing and set designs are all first-rate.

The nicest present in our Christmas stocking is from Canada’s third network, Global Television, which begins transmission in Ontario this month, and will expand later throughout Quebec. Dozens of Canadian movies (some of them languishing for years, dusty with neglect from distributors and television programmers) will be shown, at the rate of one a week for the coming year. For many viewers, it will be like suddenly discovering a heritage they never knew existed. Films by Paul Almond, Claude Jutra, Gilles Carle, Don Shebib, and many others, major and minor artists, will be shown. The French films will be carefully dubbed, Global promises, and most of them are being shown in English for the first time. The leadoff film is Denis Heroux’s Tai Mon Voyage, a big success in Quebec, to be followed shortly by Gilles Carle’s Red, and Rape of A Sweet Young Girl. Global’s lineup of Canadian movies is well nigh exhaustive, except for Mon Oncle Antoine, sold to CTV, and Kamouraska, sold to the CBC. Whatever the ratings, these films will be reaching their largest audience to date, and that audience, as the fall and winter box office figures testify, is a constantly growing one. Global promises a policy of no censorship, and as tasteful an insertion of commercial messages as possible, with a minimum of interruptions. There will also be, as often as possible, interviews with the film directors, and lively debates about the themes and ideas of the films.