Since the publication of Louis Hémon's classic novel in 1914, Maria Chapde1aine has been a controver
sial symbol for French Canadians. Beautiful yet dutiful, chased yet chaste, she embodies the spirit of calm resilience that sustained human society in an inhospitable land. Her life was simple and her possessions few; her willpower and emotions were strong. But Maria’s lack of independence and her submissiveness to fate caused a
later generation to look with skepticism at Hémon’s heroine. Still, director Gilles Carle (Les Ploujfe) has treated Maria Chapdelaine with something approaching reverence. His is the third movie version of the book (the first, made in 1934, featured the great French actress Madeleine Renaud) and the first to be made in Quebec. But, despite Carle’s evident affection for the book, he transforms it into a glossy epic.
A carefully observed portrait of a frontier society in central Quebec, Maria Chapdelaine is also a romance about a lovely woman courted by three men—one good, one bad and one ugly. The parents of Maria (Carole Laure) have promised her to the tender, boring Eutrope Gagnon (Pierre Curzi), but she falls for a logger and fur trader (Nick
Mancuso) with a checkered past and the allegorical name François Paradis. Torn between the two men, she finds her life even more complicated when Lorenzo Surprenant (Donald Lautrec), a well-to-do but unprepossessing expatriate, returns to Lac St-Jean from New England; offering material bounty, he, too, wants to win her. Goodness triumphs in the end, but only because Paradis perishes in a sensational Christmastime blizzard.
Although Maria Chapdelaine takes place in 1913, the absence of cars, telephones and other machines makes the
action appear to belong in the 19th century. As well, the film’s attitudes seem irretrievably distant: although three men are in love with Maria, none of them attempts to give her even a quick kiss. Fortunately, Maria Chapdelaine respects the dignity of a past it would be all too easy to mock. One of the film’s best moments occurs when the city slicker Surprenant asks Maria if she has ever seen a cowboy movie. Living beside a wilderness, complete with roaming packs of wolves, she has never visited a cinema and can hardly understand the appeal of the Wild West. By not denigrating her naïveté, the film portrays a vanished time without imposing contemporary values on it.
With a plot dominated by natural forces, Maria Chapdelaine succeeds in
making the landscape an essential part of the story. Few films demonstrate with such brutal accuracy the power of wind and winter. Although Carle, a former lumberjack, shows the full moon wrapped in clouds at least three times too often, for the most part he uses nature to create dramatic effect. Maria’s broken voice describing the horror of Paradis’ death provides an eerie accompaniment to an idyllic image of bare trees bathed by the sun and blanketed with hoarfrost. To accentuate the sense of lonely distance, Carle shoots many frames with long, empty foregrounds. The real star of Maria Chapdelaine is nature.
Against those spectacular land-
scapes, Laure and Mancuso suffer from having an overly sleek appearance. They perform with the self-consciousness of sophisticates slumming in the bush. The camera constantly pans to Mancuso when he is doing nothing in particular except looking rugged and smiling broadly like a refugee from a mouthwash commercial. Since Maria is a good Roman Catholic girl who never argues with her priest and parents, Laure has relatively few lines. But she succeeds in conveying a wide range of meanings by gestures alone.
The actors also fight a losing battle against Maria Chapdelaine’s lavish effects. For the daughter of a struggling farmer, Maria’s costumes and makeup are sometimes wildly inappropriate. Picking blueberries at the edge of a forest, she frolics in a long red dress that Oscar de la Renta could have fashioned. Although the other members of her family have home-made clothes and tangled hair, Laure’s long black locks are always imma-
culate. The same desire to bring tinsel to the woods afflicts the movie’s creamy orchestral score. When Paradis tells Maria how happy he will be with her, her silence is crucial. She loves him fiercely but against her mother’s wishes and her priest’s advice. Still, at that point the music inflates to a crescendo as if Carle could not quite take the characters’ emotions seriously.
Those shortcomings are unfortunate since Maria Chapdelaine in many ways succeeds as a full-blooded period romance. Its cinematography is effective, and the historical details are exact. But for the sake of box-office success the film’s creators have smoothed out every possible rough edge. The result is a moist, velvety movie about a cold, dangerous world. -MARK ABLEY
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