FILMS

Slapshot to success

Yves Simoneau scores with pucks and Puccini

Brian D. Johnson February 25 1991
FILMS

Slapshot to success

Yves Simoneau scores with pucks and Puccini

Brian D. Johnson February 25 1991

Slapshot to success

Yves Simoneau scores with pucks and Puccini

FILMS

Quebec director Yves Simoneau recalls that after an early screening of his new movie, Perfectly Normal, the first person who came up to him said: “This is one of the best Canadian movies I’ve ever seen.” The second person commented: “I like it a lot, but it’s definitely not a Canadian movie.” The third said: “It’s really like an Italian movie.” Curiously, all three statements ring true. No movie has captured the character of Canadian ambition with as much acuity and wit as Perfectly Normal, a comedy about a mild-mannered brewery worker who plays hockey and has secret dreams of singing opera. But it does not look like a Canadian movie. It is idiosyncratic without being parochial. It is smart, funny and sublimely lyrical. And Simoneau’s fluid direction achieves a rare harmony between North American candor and European grace.

Perfectly Normal marks a breakthrough for Canadian cinema—and for Simoneau. At 35, he is the hottest Quebec director of his generation. And his first English-language movie is receiving unusually wide American distribution. In a departure from the usual pattern—in which Canadian movies reach U.S. audiences

months after their domestic release—Perfectly Normal is hitting both countries at roughly the same time. It opens across Canada on Feb. 22, after winning acclaim in Los Angeles and New York City last week. It drew praise from the Los Angeles Times and from L.A. Weekly, whose critic Ella Taylor cited its “visual wit and beauty.” And although Vincent Canby of The New York Times panned it, Jami Bernard of The New York Post wrote: “Well-directed and unconventional, Perfectly Normal is a perfectly delightful movie.”

Meanwhile, Simoneau’s star is rising in Hollywood. He and his 21-year-old wife, Belgianborn painter Adèle Deprèz, now commute between Montreal and Los Angeles, where he has been working with Propaganda Films, the company that produces television’s Twin Peaks. He recently finished shooting Memphis, a TV movie starring Cybill Shepherd. John Laughlin, Shepherd’s co-star in the movie, told Maclean’s last week: “Yves is a master at knowing what he wants. He works with incredible ease—and Cybill is not the easiest person to get along with.” Added Laughlin, who has worked with veteran directors ranging from Francis Ford Coppola to Ken Russell: “Yves is

the best director I’ve ever worked with. One day, you will see this man at the Academy Awards.”

Made for just $4 million, Perfectly Normal demonstrates Simoneau’s capacity to work wonders on a modest —budget. Shot in Toronto and Guelph, Ont., but set in a fictional English-Canadian town called Long Bay, the movie tells the story of Renzo, a shy young man of Italian descent portrayed by Toronto actor Michael Riley. Renzo lives alone. He is a goalie for his brewery’s hockey team. And on some nights, he drives a cab—he is saving up to build a little house on a plot of land outside of town.

One night, Renzo picks up an American drifter named Alonzo, who turns his wellordered life upside down, z Flamboyantly played by Scotia tish actor Robbie Coltrane, “ Alonzo is Renzo’s polar opposite—a silver-tongued epicure with no visible means of support. He talks his way into sharing Renzo’s house. Then, after Renzo receives an unexpected windfall, Alonzo persuades him to sink the money into a bizarre venture—a theme restaurant called La Traviata with costumed waiters and waitresses who sing arias while serving entrées.

Under Alonzo’s influence, Renzo begins to open up. Reluctantly, he lets a girlfriend into his life. Pool-playing Denise, portrayed with seductive sweetness by Toronto actress Deborah Duchene, gently hustles him into bed. And as Renzo surrenders his virginity, the camera marks the rite of passage by cutting outdoors to a policeman giving him a parking ticket—the sort of ironic aside that gives the movie its gentle charm.

Perfectly Normal is not perfect. It takes a while for the story to get into gear. And the farce around the edges does not work as well as the odd-couple comedy at the core. Kenneth Welsh veers into caricature as Charlie, a brewery foreman who serves as the coach of its failing hockey team. Eugene Lipinski strains credibility as a slapstick psychotic named Helpless who persecutes Renzo at work with industrial sabotage, for motives that remain annoyingly obscure.

But the comic chemistry between Riley and Coltrane is terrific. And the serenely quirky humor of Toronto novelist Paul Quarrington, who co-wrote the script with Lipinski, is evident throughout the movie. Simoneau, meanwhile, directs with a brilliant eye. He keeps the camera in constant motion, arranging shots like intricate movements in a piece of music. Breaking beer bottles collide on the assembly line in symphonic chaos. A puck ricochets in slow motion off the forehead of a player. Whether he is portraying Canadian hockey, Italian opera or french kissing, Simoneau cre-

ates images of compelling beauty and intrigue.

The director, in fact, seems so wedded to his esthetic vision that he downplays the movie’s cultural implications. As the tale of a pushy American promoter who invades the life of a Canadian introvert, Perfectly Normal has an obvious subtext. At one point, Alonzo scoffs at Renzo’s “tiny, fizzy little dreams”—a cutting comment that could apply to Canadian culture in general and the country’s struggling film industry in particular. “But my idea was not to make a metaphor between Canada and America,” Simoneau told Maclean ’s. “That’s certainly written within the movie, but I didn’t think about it for a minute.”

Stylishly dressed, his thinning hair pulled back into a ponytail, Simoneau described his

own vision of the film in an interview last month before a gala screening of Perfectly Normal in Montreal. He recalled telling Riley: “You have to play Renzo like you’re a grey line in front of a grey wall. You want to disappear; you’re a shadow. Meeting this guy [Alonzo] is going to open the doors to all sorts of things inside you and, by the end, you’re going to find it perfectly normal to accept what you are.”

The director feels strongly enough about his own cultural identity to acknowledge his support for Quebec independence. But unlike fellow Quebec director Denys Arcand, who won international acclaim for Jesus of Montreal (1989) and The Decline of the American Empire (1986), Simoneau seems eager to work in Hollywood. “You could not be more Québécois than me,” he said. “But that does not mean you have to lock yourself in the country.”

In Los Angeles, Simoneau has developed a close working relationship with Propaganda Films. “They have a very creative approach in everything they do,” he said. “They’re my

family now, and I feel totally at home with them.” In fact, Simoneau says that he feels more at home in Los Angeles than in Toronto. He added: “When I work in Toronto, I’m always ‘the guy from Quebec.’ But in Hollywood, the movie industry is full of talented people who come from all over the place. Even if my English is very bizarre sometimes, I make myself understood. When you look at Hollywood, all those guys who came there from Eastern Europe, they talked like me in a way.” Said the director: “I never took any limitations for granted.”

Growing up in Quebec City, there was not much that Simoneau could take for granted. He and his three older sisters were raised in poverty by a single mother, Marie-Paule Simoneau, who survived on welfare. “It was a very feminine environment,” he recalled. He says that he never met his father and does not even know his name. When Simoneau was a baby, his father abandoned his mother, who lost all trace of him. Simoneau grew up believing that his father was dead. But at 15, he suddenly learned that he had, in fact, died only two years earlier. “I remember that day,” he said. “My mother got a phone call. She went white. In my mind, he had always been dead. So it was like he died twice.”

As a child, Simoneau says, he created his own little theatre with plastic characters. “It’s never been a problem for me to slip into the movie world,” he said. “I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid.” But he adds that he might have become a delinquent had he not discovered photography. By his early teens, he was developing and printing his own pictures. And at 16, he made his first amateur film as a school project. “It was supposed to be about what you think is important in life,” he recalled. “I did a super-8 film about death—a comedy about a guy who commits suicide.”

After spending a year in junior college, Simoneau went on to work for Gamma Films, an independent Quebec City production house, while studying film part time at Laval University. While at Gamma, he worked as a TV news cameraman for the local French CBC station. “If it was 20 below zero at 2 a.m. and there was a fire on the other side of town,” he said, “I was the one they’d pick. But it was pure joy. I would shoot the footage, edit it, then see it shown to an audience all in the space of 12 hours.”

In TV journalism, Simoneau learned the kinetic camera style that still distinguishes his

work. After attracting attention with a number of short films, he made his first feature, Les Célébrations, a marital comedy, in 1978. A 1983 documentary, Why Is the Strange Monsieur Zolock Interested in Comic Strips?, won him a Canadian Genie award. In 1985, he made Pouvoir intime (literally, “intimate power”), a taut psychological thriller about the hijacking of an armored truck, that brought the director international acclaim.

Bringing a fresh style to each of his movies, Simoneau displays remarkable versatility. In his 1986 feature, Les Fous de bassan {In the Shadow of the Wind), a gothic tale adapted from Quebec author Anne Hébert’s novel, his camera soars and turns like a mad gull around the Gaspé’s Bonaventure Island. Its narrative unfolds like visual poetry. But Dans le ventre du dragon {In the Belly of the Dragon), his 1988 farce about a murderous pharmaceutical company, is all crisply sliced narrative logic.

As a film-maker, Simoneau adapts his vision to suit his material. But he says that his basic method remains the same. In making Perfectly Normal, he explained, “I wanted it to be a bubble, a closed world where you meet different people. And this is what I try to do in every film—to give a ticket to somewhere else.” For now, Simoneau’s own ticket has taken him to Hollywood, the original dream factory. And there, where outlandish ambition is perfectly normal, he may have an opportunity to shake up those “tiny, fizzy little dreams” and let them loose.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON