Unveiling Carole Laure
Even the New Quebec is no substitute for Hollywood
Carole Laure, who is perhaps Quebec’s most celebrated young film actress, is joking with her lover, director Gilles Carle. Teasingly, she tells him she wants to play with American movie star Robert De Niro, and Carle, small and greying, with a straggling moustache that makes him look like a used car salesman from Trois Rivières. pretends to make a phone call to De Niro. “Hello, De Niro,” he deadpans. “There’s a little French girl here in Quebec who’s interested in playing with you. What’s that? Sure she can act.” Laure, a dark-haired beauty with large and formidable eyes, snorts at this. And now she is only half-joking: “Well. I’ll act with him. Just wait and see.”
Carole Laure wants to be an international movie star. In her mid-twenties (she won’t say exactly how old she is), it is no longer enough that after nine feature films—four of them, including the latest, La Tête de Normande St.-Onge, for Carle— and two French-language television series (one of them produced in Paris) she is one of French Canada's busiest actresses. She has grown weary of the low-budget insularity of the Quebec film industry, tired of the celluloid curtain that is dropped between the province’s French-language films and the rest of English-speaking North America. And increasingly these days, film makers outside Canada are evincing a decided interest in Laure. Agents, producers and directors are after her constantly to sign with them. She was the toast of last year’s Cannes Film Festival, and has been photographed for Vogue en jumpsuit de crêpe noir alongside the likes of Glenda Jackson and Sophia Loren. From France come demands that she star in a film with Yves Montand. Such is her potency that Montand, whose beautifully lined face on the movie screen barely allows itself the flick of an eyebrow over a woman, will—in Laure’s beautifully broken English—“suicide himself’ in the movie rather than see her wrongfully accused of murder.
Hollywood, sleek and casual, offers her a five-picture contract. There was talk of Laure starring in the multimillion-dollar screen version of that schlock best seller, Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side Of Midnight. “We get a solid stream of inquiries about her.” says her personal manager, Los Angeles-based Barry Krost, a man who speaks in delicately clipped tones between phone calls to other clients who inelude movie stars Maria Schneider and Carol Kane, and Cat Stevens, the English singer. Adds Krost: “I think she’s amaz-
ing—the best young actress I’ve seen in years.”
With all of her enthusiasm for stardom. Laure is nonetheless suspicious of it. If that seems a contradiction, well, she is a woman riddled with them. “I want everything,” she says. “I hate frustration, yet I am constantly frustrated.” She likes to play at being an eccentric, a Bohemian living out of a suitcase, yet she finds herself drawn inexorably toward normalcy. She badly wants her career, yet she is obsessed with having a child which would interfere with it. She is concerned for her future, and tortured by a dark past.
She is compared to Geneviève Bujold, and the similarities are there. Both actresses are headstrong, at once beguilingly childlike and incredibly sensual. But Laure dislikes what international stardom has forced upon Bujold. She hears Bujold is depressed by her work in generally unsuccessful movies such as Obsession and Swashbuckler. So to avoid the pitfalls of commercial moviemaking, to alleviate her suspicion of stardom. Laure is making the most difficult of demands: stardom on her own terms.
Which is why, recently, she found herself heaving and straining at a bar, doing warm-up exercises for an early morning ballet class. The instructor, Conrad Peterson, orders the class to perform a series of batteries, intricate beating movements with the feet. Dancers’ faces are supposed to remain serenely immobile at all times, but Laure’s is like India rubber, incapable of keeping still, eyes bulging in feigned agony, the mouth twisted in exaggerated disgust. “Don’t let your eyes bug out.” Peterson shouts at her. The order is pointless. It is like asking a child to be quiet.
She has endured the agony of the dance class for six months, practising five hours a day. When she first became an actress, with no training, she was initially successful because she was beautiful and could move naturally across the stage. In La Mort d'un bûcheron (Death Of A Lumberjack), the movie that made her a star in Quebec, it was not her acting that attracted attention so much as a dance of blood-stirring sensuality that she performed in the film. But moving well is not the same as being a professional dancer, and in these rehearsals with members of the corps de ballet it shows. “I tell you I go crazy,” she confesses later. “I cry and almost quit many times.”
She has not quit because she must be able to dance for the musical film that she and Carle are making. If she cannot be sure what outside offers will do for her, then she
will create her own international stardom while retaining some measure of artistic control. The musical will do this—at least that is the hope. It is a hope shared not only by Carle, but also by Montreal pop singer Lewis Furey, who has composed the music and will co-star in the film, and by producer Harry Gulkin, who made Lies My Father Told Me and, more recently, a film based on Mordecai Richler’s children’s book, Jacob Two-Two Meets The Hooded Fang.
In November, the four breezed into Toronto’s Park Plaza Hotel to meet the local press. Gulkin announced that the musical—which will be made in French and English—would be called Exit, and unveiled a vague story line concerning a traveling circus that arrives in a small town in Quebec, not unlike Shawinigan where Carole Laure grew up. “We have joined forces,” declared Gulkin. “for a project whose impact will be felt in centres around the world.” Not only would the film have a budget of $ 1.5 million, he added, a star of the rank of Henry Fonda, Jason Robards or Yves Montand, but it would serve as “the vehicle that launches the international career of Carole Laure.”
Laure, a Quebec separatist who regards Toronto as part of a foreign country, used the occasion to announce that she had turned down a contract with 20th Century Fox. “They’re asking me to give up my work here.” she explained. “Why, after making four feature films with Gilles, why should I make big stupid films?”
Carole Laure did not grow up with a burning desire to become an actress. She saw movies and television in Shawinigan, but they had no lasting effect on her. It was not until she was a young schoolteacher in Montreal and saw an amateur play that she became intrigued with acting. Characteristically, she immediately went backstage and announced: “I want to be an actress.” Perhaps because of the casualness with which she entered the business, she has always maintained a disinterest bordering on disdain for the celebrity trappings that are usually part of it. Her idea of a good time is an evening of chess with Carle at a local club. She lives quietly and without pretension. Despite the fact that she owns a farm an hour south of Montreal, and maintains a pleasant apartment with Carle at the base of Mount Royal, she shuns anything that smacks of being bourgeois.
So it is curious to find her hustling into the labyrinthine complex of Radio-Canada’s Montreal studios for an appearance
on a quiz show called Le Travail à la chaîne (literal translation: assembly line). It is one of Quebec’s most popular shows and Laure feels she must appear on it to plug Exit, even though the film will not go into production for several months, and will not be released for nearly a year.
She hurries down a steep escalator into the bowels of the building, finds her grey cinder-block dressing room and examines herself in a full-length mirror. Except for eyeliner, her face is devoid of makeup. A production assistant leans through the door and inquires: “Are you going to make up?” “No,” replies Laure. The assistant fidgets, then asks: “You’ll do it yourself?” “It’s done,” she says shortly.
The point of Le Travail à la chaîne is that the celebrity guests must speak continually for 100 seconds without repeating the same noun or verb. They can talk about anything that enables them to plug their latest project in. it is hoped, an awkward and convoluted way that will keep the audience amused. The other panelists this evening include Clemence Desrochers, a monologist; Jean Morin, a local movie commentator whom Laure does not like
because he publicly suggested La Tête de Normande St.-Onge should be retitled Les Fesses1—the posterior—fe Normande St.Onge\ and Jean Pierre Masson, a flushfaced actor who once starred in Quebec’s longest running television series, Les Belles histoires des pays d’en haut. Tonight Masson intercepts Laure at the edge of the overdone red shag-and-tinsel set. “Are you wearing a bra?” he leers. Laure ignores him and Masson leaves her alone for the
remainder of the evening. Laure can be coquettish when she is in the mood, but there are women who look available, and women who don’t. Laure does not look available.
“But that does not mean I will always stay with one man,” she explains later. “Gilles, he is not my first man and he may not be my last. I love this man and I hope he’s my last, but I don’t know.” She is silent for a moment. “There is another thing,”
she continues, “and Gilles has put this into Exit—the more I become an artist, the more I want to become an ordinary woman. I’m afraid of not being normal. Children I want, but I don't have the courage to have them.”
She does well on the show, dutifully publicizing Exit during the silly word games. Afterward, as we leave the studios, I tell her that when we meet the next day I’d like to talk to her about her early life.
Her face darkens. “It is a big, sad cliché background,” she says. “It is not a very good background. It’s very hard to talk about it.”
She was bom in Montreal and christened Carole Champagne, the youngest of five children of a working-class family. Three months after she was bom, her mentally ill mother died, at the age of 31. Carole thinks she committed suicide. Her father decided not to keep the family together and sent Carole off to live with an elderly aunt and uncle in Shawinigan, a town of about 40,000 northeast of Montreal. “I had a nice time with them,” she says. “They never made it seem like they were doing me a favor. They tried hard to make me think I was their child. But it was so nice, you knew there had to be something sad behind it.”
She took on her uncle’s name, Martel (the professional name of Laure was chosen, for no special reason, much later), and saw her real father at six or seven-year intervals. When he did visit, he filled her with fantasy stories about her origins. Once he told her that she was an Indian princess who had been found alone on an island.
The fantasies were shattered when Laure turned 18 and arrived in Montreal to search for her father. When she found him, he had remarried and brought some of the children of his earlier marriage back to live with him. But not her. What’s more, the family was not interested in establishing a relationship with her. “It was a terrible shock,” she says. “I was very hurt.” There is an awkward silence, then Laure adds: “What bothers me is that I will never really know what happened to my mother. What kind of problems she had. In a way I became like her a bit—in my imagination. I started to think I was crazy myself, that it was héréditaire—what do you say?—hereditary. Today, my mother is like someone who didn’t exist for my family. They still want me to believe that I am an Indian princess.”
The apartment Carole Laure shares with Gilles Carle is cream colored, crowded with wicker furniture and plants, pampas grass shooting at the ceiling, sumptuous cushions spread across the hardwood floor. The light here softens and gives texture to Laure’s face, a face that in a harsher light can appear drained and take on plain, undramatic lines. Here it is easy to see why they want her in California, Paris and Toronto. Easy to see, too, why Carle was attracted to her.
When he first met her in 1972, Carle, at least 20 years her senior, was married, with three children. He was Quebec’s bestknown and most prolific director, a man who had escaped the mining community of Noranda with the intention of becoming a painter. Instead, he ended up making controversial films such as Red and Les Mâles.
At the outset of the Laure-Carle con-
nection, she was an ambitious young actress, with some stage experience as a player for le Théâtre du Nouveau Monde, Montreal’s largest theatrical company, but only a few small parts in films. The gossip around town was that Laure had latched onto Carle, as a handy aid to stardom, at a time in life when he was particularly susceptible to a younger girl’s charms. Laure today does not entirely deny that there might be an element of truth in this. “I’m not saying that if he was a doctor he would appeal to me. If he had been a doctor instead of a director, I would not be attracted to him.” She looks impishly at Carle. “If it had been that, I would have found someone younger and better looking.”
They began seeing each other. He took her to cheap snack bars and restaurants, showed her the grimy side of Montreal’s night life. It intrigued her, as did Carle, whom she had originally classified as a dirty old man. “He was very hard on me, very tough. He had a very different way of seducing women. He was telling me how irregular my features were, that my mind was not going with my body.” “The only way to approach a beautiful woman is to tell her she is ugly,” explains Carle. “Then she wants to find out why.”
“He was the first man who ever brought me to a hotel to make love.” She smiles. “I was very shy.” Carle spent long hours with her in the editing room showing her how films were made. He talked to her, probing her mind, becoming so fascinated by her past and the fears that sprang from it, that he injected parts of them into his films with her. Laure has always feared insanity, and so does the young girl in La Tête de Normande St.-Onge. Their first film together, La Mort d’un bûcheron, was based on the fictional French-Canadian heroine, Marie Chapdelaine. Only Carle changed her so that she became Carole Laure, arriving in the city from the country in search of her father—just as Laure had done.
After that late fall afternoon in her apartment, I did not speak to Carole Laure for several months. Then in January. I phoned to see how her career was progressing. She barely had time to talk. Exit was to begin shooting the next week, she was rushing to a studio to record its music, then putting the finishing touches on an experimental film that she and Carle were making, and about which she was somewhat mysterious.
When Exit finished, she would go to work on the French film in which Yves Montand “suicides himself’ for her. And there was an American film. “It is called The Aspen Queen’’ she said. “I have the lead. I pass Christmas in Aspen with the producers.” It did not sound quite like the stardom on her own terms she wanted so badly a couple of months before, but she was happy. “Oh, I am very, very excited.” Was Robert De Niro in The Aspen Queenl No, she laughed. Dirk Bogarde. I hung up hoping De Niro was not too far away.