Movie masterpieces

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1986

Movie masterpieces

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1986

Movie masterpieces



At the gala opening of the Festival of Festivals in Toronto last week, an unusually large troupe of politicians shared the spotlight with the stars. Stepping from limousines were Ontario Premier David Peterson, federal Communications Minister Flora MacDonald and three provincial cabinet ministers. It did not matter that the movie they were celebrating is largely about sex. Or that it bears the ominous title Decline of the American Empire. Or that its

director, Denys Arcand, was once notorious for making films that depicted politicians as gangsters (page 48). The dignitaries were saluting a milestone in Canadian cinema: few, if any, movies made in Canada have generated such widespread enthusiasm as Decline. It received the International Critics Prize at Cannes and has broken box office records in Quebec. Over the next few weeks it will open across Canada, and distribution rights have been sold to 25 countries. After its Toronto premiere, Arcand teased the jubilant audience with a self-deprecating speech, then said, “I know you people like this kind of showbiz.”

Excitement: Canada’s movie industry as a whole is gaining confidence, telling stories more clearly and powerfully than ever. Next week two Canadian films, Decline and the Toronto-made Dancing in the Dark, are showing at the esteemed New York Film Festival. And Loyalties, shot in Alberta, has stirred excitement at festivals in both Montreal and Toronto. But nowhere is the vitality of Canadian moviemaking more apparent than in Quebec.

Along with Decline, hailed by Philippe J. Maarek, the Paris-based vice-president of the French Critics Union, as “one of the five best North American films of the year,” two other French-language hits are opening in English

Canadian theatres this week. Yves Simoneau’s gritty Pouvoir intime (Intimate Power) has already proved that a Quebec-made thriller can compete head-to-head with Hollywood at the summer box office. And Anne Trister, a poetic drama directed by Léa Pool, created a sensation at the Berlin film festival this year. It also ran for 23 weeks in Montreal theatres.

A younger generation of moviemakers, along with such veterans as Arcand, is making a new kind of film, one

that manages to be both personal and commercial. Those movies are sleek and poised, but their intelligence is coolly distant from both Hollywood formulas and the province’s own stereotypes. The first Quebec movie to attract major notice in English Canada, 1971’s Mon Onde Antoine, left a lingering image of a sled carrying a coffin through the snow. By contrast, in Decline a group of well-manicured women drive g from an urban health § club to a modern couns try cottage in a shiny I BMW (page 50). In mak~~ ing Decline, said direc! tor Arcand, “I was very 5 careful to remove any notion of Quebec. The word Quebec isn’t even uttered. The characters have other preoccupations.” As French critic Maarek pointed out, “Decline could be based anywhere, which is the strength of the movie.”

Soft-core: In the past, Quebec moviemakers used the screen to celebrate the distinctiveness of the province’s politics, history, landscapes and language. While EnglishCanadian directors such as Norman Jewison and Ted Kotcheff gravitated to Hollywood, their francophone counterparts had little choice but to develop their own mythology and skills within Quebec’s culture. To help finance their more ambitious projects, several producers created a cottage industry in soft-core sex films. The first was the 1968 hit Valerie, the story of a young woman who had escaped from a convent. And 1970’s Deux femmes en or (Two Women in Gold), in which two bored housewives dallied with deliverymen, still holds the box office record as Quebec’s highest-grossing film, with $2.5 million in local box office revenues. Although crudely commercial, those movies helped the industry build a production base for what has become Canada’s strongest cinematic tradition.

When Toronto’s Festival of Festivals prepared a retrospective of 150 Canadian movies in 1984, more than half were from Quebec. And when Canadian and international

critics selected a Top-10 list from the retrospective, seven of their choices were Quebec titles. Most reflected the province’s political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s and early 1970s. Les ordres (Orders), directed by Michel Brault, dramatizes the psychological horror of five people arbitrarily imprisoned during the 1970 October Crisis. The final scene of La vraie nature de Bernadette (The True Nature of Bernadette), directed by Gilles Carle in 1972, shows its heroine poised with a rifle overlooking an expressway blocked by a farmers’ demonstration.

Murdered: The rupture of a society in transition between country and city is a frequent theme in movies of that era, especially in Carle’s. His heroines are constantly returning to nature to discover their identity. In his 1973 movie La mort d'un bûcheron (Death of a Lumberjack), a young woman goes into the bush to search for her father, who has been murdered.

Quebec films are full of lost fathers, symbolizing a lost fatherland. Director JeanPierre Lefebvre expressed the idea most directly with his 1977 classic, Le vieux pays où Rimbaud est Mort (The Old Country Where Rimbaud Died)—the story of a man searching for his ancestral roots in France.

But the nostalgic obsessions and militant dreams that once characterized Quebec cinema weakened with the collapse of the independence movement. At the same time, financing for independent Canadian features dried up as investment in television increased. The slump forced the province’s moviemakers to reassess their priorities. Said Roger Frappier, who helped produce Decline, Anne Trister and Pouvoir intime while working for the National Film

Board (NFB) last year: “Independence didn’t happen. The party’s over. Our directors now realize they have to reach a broader public. And there is a new breed of producers who want to make quality cinema that is both commercial and accessible.”

As new styles of Quebec cinema emerge, audiences and critics are displaying impatience with those who refuse to adapt. Carle, who has made 21 feature films, is the acknowledged master of Quebec’s romantic tradition of film-making. But his latest movie, La guêpe ( The Wasp), a melodrama about vengeance, provoked a venomous response from critics at last month’s film festival in Montreal. A front-page headline in the French-language daily Le Devoir posed the question: “Death of a filmmaker?” Before La guêpe's première, Carle appeared to be expecting the worst: z “People never like my films when they 8 first open,” he said. “But then they always g talk about my past work and say I’m a great director.”

I Key: Like most of his generation, Carle I began his career making documentaries at I the NFB. With headquarters in Montreal, the board still plays a key role in Quebec cinema, and it helped launch the province’s new wave of dramatic features. Last year the NFB’S Frappier set up a workshop at the board where the future directors of Decline and Anne Trister discussed their scripts. Said Frappier: “I wanted to see them make films that reflected their own lives. Too many directors were working on commercial projects for someone else.”

Meanwhile, the NFB has also helped Anglo-Quebec moviemakers to find a distinctive voice. Fusing dramatic and

documentary techniques, a team of NFB directors at the board’s Studio B have explored sexual politics by persuading nonactors to improvise dialogue before the camera. The studio’s low-budget comedy 90 Days, directed by Giles Walker, has grossed $1 million in 15 countries since its release last year. And the same studio produced Sitting in Limbo, a comedy-drama about a young Barbadian couple in Montreal, which won a special award at the city’s 1986 film festival. After the première, the cast staged a celebration in a cramped clapboard reggae club next to a Porsche showroom in west-end Montreal.

One of the film’s stars, Fabian Gibbs, even sacrificed a night’s pay from his job as a hospital worker to attend the party—a sign of the intimate loyalties that had developed during the making of the movie.

Tradition: The NFB still maintains its documentary tradition, but many of the board’s francophone graduates moved into fictional features early in their careers. They had be-

come dissatisfied with the limitations of recording a reality that often failed to live up to their dramatic expectations. Arcand, for one, says that he felt frustrated by On est au coton (We Work in Cotton), his 1970 NFB film on the exploitation of textile workers. Calling it “a grey film,” he contrasted it with a 1977 American documentary about a strike titled Harlan County,

U.S.A. Said Arcand: “Harlan County has a scene of a woman who puts her hand in her bra and pulls out a .38. How could I beat that with dour FrenchCanadian workers peacefully negotiating?”

Violence: As Arcand and others moved into fiction, their films were often dark with violence. And their characters spoke the rough dialects of the street—“people with guns and taverns,” as Arcand says. But what made those movies distinctive also made them difficult to place in foreign markets: audiences in France still tend to be amused by Quebec accents. Yves Simoneau, the 30-year-old director of Pouvoir intime, said that although Quebec French is easily understood by a Paris audience, “it suggests a regional color that distances people from the story.”

Simoneau says he is considering having his thriller dubbed into Parisian French for mass distribution in France. But his new project, a Quebec-France co-production titled Les Fous de Bassan (In the Shadow of the Wind), creates a special problem. The co-production agreement demanded a transatlantic cast, which resulted

in a French and a Quebec actor playing a brother and sister—with different accents. Simoneau said that he will have fewer problems with language, and distribution, if he makes future projects in English.

Meanwhile, Quebec producers are aggressively expanding into other markets. Montreal’s Roch Demers has found an audience for children’s movies in both English and French. He developed a master plan to make 12 features in six years, and had scripts in hand for all of them before shooting the first, The Dog Who Stopped the War, in 1984. Filmed in French and dubbed into English, it has grossed $2.3 million at the Canadian box office and in foreign sales. His 1985 movie The Peanut Butter Solution, which he shot in English, has done equally well. Demers says that he plans to release Bach z et Bottine (Bach and I Boot) this fall, folI lowed by The Young I Magician next I February, i Sophisticated: As Quebec moviemakers develop a more sophisticated business approach, several provincial and federal agencies have given strong support to the revival of local production. The province’s société générale du cinéma du Québec, for one, helped finance 14 feature films last year with grants totalling almost $10 million. Telefilm Canada and the NFB shared more than 80 per cent of Decline’s $1.8-million

budget. And last month the two federal agencies created an $ll-million fund to aid the production of another six French-language features over the next 18 months. Citing Quebec’s recent movie successes, Telefilm executive director Peter Pearson said, “We z decided that it was essential to g keep this creative process Í going.” Added NFB chairman François Maceróla: “The beau| ty of the fund is that it will I help first-time directors as I well as the veterans.” u Denys Arcand’s two decades in film-making span both the old and new generations of moviemakers. And with Decline’s success, Quebec cinema has come full circle. It seems appropriate that its theme is sex: some of the movies that helped lay the commercial foundation for the province’s movie industry, notably Deux femmes en or, also dealt with the erotic. Those films exploited a society’s adolescent fantasies. Decline explores its adult delusions and desires. And with Quebec leading the way, Canadian cinema crosses a new threshold of maturity.