The new homegrown movies seem to have sex on the brain
BRIAN D. JOHNSON
Perhaps it is something in the water. Or a hormonal surge in the atmosphere. Something strange is happening to Canadian movies. Each year at the end of the summer, film festivals in Montreal and Toronto ritually unveil new work by Canadian directors. Until now, certain traditions were observed. There would be bittersweet coming-of-age stories like My American Cousin, unconsummated romances like Bye Bye Blues and grim histori-
cal epics like Bethune and Black Robe. And under the bedrock of sentiment and angst, there would be a creepy erotic tension, dormant like a tropical parasite, but occasionally surfacing in films by Atom Egoyan or David Cronenberg.
Now, it seems to be out in the open.
All of a sudden, Canadian cinema has sex on the brain. There is more of it in this season’s crop than in the past 10 years combined. Sex of all descriptions. Straight sex, gay sex and scrambled sex. Incestuous, pathological and political sex. Intellectual sex—and mindless, buck-naked sex for the sheer, unadulterated hell of it.
Both the Montreal and Toronto film festivals chose to launch their programs with movies about gender-bending. The Montreal World Film Festival (Aug. 26 to Sept. 6) opened with Le. sexe des étoiles, a drama about a 12-year-old girl grappling with the fact that her father has become a transsexual. Toronto’s Festival of Festivals (Sept. 9 to 18) opens this week with Cronenberg’s M. Butterfly, a romantic tragedy about a man in love with a woman who is really
a maiL _____ As usual, the Toronto festival
has attracted the lion’s share of I new movies by Canadian directors.
And among the 16 dramatic features, many are stories of characters peeling back the frontiers of sex—and sanity. They range from the hard-edged Love and Human Remains, a tale of desperate dating set against a backdrop of serial murder, to I Love a Man in Uniform, about an actor who makes a sadomasochistic fetish of his police costume; from the provocative Zero Patience, a surreal musical about AIDS, to the exceptionally graphic Paris, France, a tangled Last Tango of erotic fantasies.
Cameron Bailey, program co-ordinator for the Toronto festival’s Perspective Canada series, says that this year, “sex has been taken to an extreme that I haven’t seen in Canadian movies.” No one knows exactly why. But Bailey has a theory. “Maybe
Canadian film-makers have finally figured out that they can’t afford big car chases, elaborate sets and big stars,” he says. “What can they afford to do on screen that’s cheap? Well . . . sex. It’s not exploitative sex. They’re interested in exploring ideas and characters. And if they can do it cheaply, it makes perfect sense. It’s amazing that we haven’t thought of this before.”
The new fascination with sex may also be part of a drift away from the country’s documentary tradition— and an alignment with the extreme visions of Cronenberg. For a long time, he was a voice in the wilderness. His contemporaries, directors like Don Shebib (Goin’ Down the Road) and Don Owen (Nobody Waved Goodbye), pioneered Canadian cinema in the late 1960s with homespun dramas of lost innocence, movies that reflected the National Film Board’s (NFB) documentary legacy. “Cronenberg’s obsession is always looking below the surface,” says Piers Handling, deputy director of the Festival of Festivals, “and the surface was associated with documentary film.” But as the NFB’s influence wanes, the new generation is seeking inspiration elsewhere, Handling suggests: “At this point in time, Cronenberg seems to be the central figure, the guru.”
Quebec, of course, is a special case. And its vibrant cinema has always had a healthy libido. In 1986, Quebec director Denys Arcand scored a hit with The Decline of the American Empire, a smart, ribald comedy about a dinner party devoted to sexual confessions. Now, with Love and Human Remains, he has made his first English-language movie, with a script that Edmonton playwright Brad Fraser adapted from his own hit play Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love.
It is a darkly comic drama focused on two friends who share an apartment: David, a gay actor-tumed-waiter with a cynical wit, and Candy, a book reviewer who consistently finds fault with the books she reads—and the men she dates. “I need someone who will hang around for my orgasm,” she tells David, who advises her to “stop dating straight men.” A parade of characters drifts in and out of their lives: a lesbian fixated on Candy, a bi-curious busboy, a psychic dominatrix and a misogynist civil servant. In the shadows, a serial killer stalks the streets.
Unlike Arcand’s Decline, a convivial satire about a weekend in the country, Love and Human Remains presents an ensemble of discordant lives, a naked cityscape in which everyone is a stranger. The sex scenes are deliberately cold and unfulfilling. David gambles with AIDS in a gay disco; a slave licks a leather boot in a barren highrise. “This film is not about eroticism at all,” Arcand told Maclean’s over lunch in Montreal. “People fall in bed together and they don’t really know why. They do it because there’s a physical urge, then right after they regret it.”
What attracted him to Fraser’s play, says Arcand, was its cynicism, its wit—and a sense of repressed menace that he considers a hallmark of English-Canadian art. “English-Canadians have this view of themselves as very staid,” he says. “But in theatre you have Brad Fraser and Judith Thompson. In film, Cronenberg and Egoyan. These people are weird. Imok at [Alex] Colville—on the surface, hyperrealistic painting, but you can’t find more anguish, more threatening violence.”
Arcand was eager to film Love and Human Remains in Edmonton.
But after an Alberta financing deal fell through, he had to resign himself to working on familiar turf, in Montreal. The director has portrayed his home town as never before, as a cold, anonymous city without a hint of a landmark or a French accent—a concrete hell of expressways, culverts, tunnels and parking garages; a wasteland with hookers stationed on freeway ramps. “Life is dangerous at night in these cities,” says Arcand. “Love is dangerous. You can get AIDS.
You can get strangled. You can get beaten up. It’s a blood sport.”
In I Love A Man in Uniform, writer-director David Wellington films his own city, Toronto, with the same kind of chilling anonymity. While Arcand strips Montreal down to bare, subterranean concrete, Wellington’s camera finds sterile surfaces of steel and glass, reducing Toronto to reflections of narcissism. “The flip side,” says the director, “is that between all these clean, orderly buildings, there is always an alley.”
Uniform, a hot item at the Cannes Film Festival last May, is a tense psychological thriller. Tom McCamus delivers a quietly rivetting perfomance as Henry, a bank clerk who has aspirations to be an actor. He gets a night job playing a cop on a cheesy TV crime series—then starts to wear his uniform, and his weapon, on the street. His methodacting exercise gradually gets out of hand. He takes his revolver to bed. Armed with the same premise, Hollywood might have turned the movie into a vigilante shoot-’em-up. But Uniform sublimates violence into existential suspense. And beneath it all is an unnerving current of homoeroticism.
Wellington says that the idea for the film came from an incident that he witnessed one night in a Montreal alley. “I saw a cop being serviced by a prostitute in his cruiser,” he recalls. “It really gave me the creeps.” In the movie, Henry makes a fetish of his revolver.
When he puts on the uniform, it is like dressing in drag. He wears a shiny leather jacket, like American cops. Toronto police uniforms were not sexy enough, says Wellington. “Leather reflects the light and kind of looks like metal. It represents a fascist ideal.” Stangely enough, a movie about AIDS sounds a more cheerful note. Written and di-
rected by John Greyson, 33, Zero Patience is the year’s most adventurous film about sex. Until now, movies and TV dramas have tended to treat AIDS with a palliative dose of tragic sentiment, but Greyson’s film breaks new ground. It is a combination of musical come-
dy, wacky science lecture and whimsical manifesto-presented in a startling visual design that incorporates eye charts, architecture and synchronized swimming.
The script’s point of departure is the wide-
spread media speculation that a gay FrenchCanadian flight attendant (dubbed Patient Zero) brought the first case of AIDS to North America in the late 1970s. The baroque story line breaks all the usual laws of narrative gravity. The central character is Sir Richard Francis Burton Qohn Robinson), the real-life Victorian explorer and sexologist who had an anthropological obsession with measuring penis size.
Miraculously alive 170 years after his birth, Burton is working at a natural history museum. And he needs a hot attraction to headline the Hall of Contagion, an exhibition on diseases down through the ages. The Patient Zero case fits the bill. But as Burton prepares his display, fudging facts with great gusto, Zero’s ghost (Norman Fauteux) shows up to set the record straight (and gay).
Greyson targets the science and media establishments in a cabaret show trial. Behind all the song-and-dance satire, he develops a rigorous, researched polemic condemning their “epidemic of blame.” But with villains that have names like Dr. Placebo and Gilbert-Sullivan Pharmaceuticals, Zero Patience never loses its sense of humor.
Another movie without precedent in the annals of Canadian cinema is Paris, France, but on an entirely different level. Directed by Toronto-based filmmaker Gerard Ciccoritti, it presents more graphic nudity and sex than has ever been seen in a Canadian movie outside the exploitation genre. The action adds up to a Canuck Kama Sutra—a smorgasbord of intercourse, fellatio, cunnilingus, anal sex, bondage, bisexuality, humiliation, hallucination, pubic shaving, candle dripping and group sex. There is even the occasional kiss.
Adapted by writer Tom Walmsley from his own novel, Paris, France is a comic drama about an author named Lucy (Leslie Hope), who embarks on a sexual and cerebral odyssey to relieve a nagging case of writer’s block. The story spans an Easter weekend. While Lucy has an affair with a sexually omnivorous poet (Peter Outerbridge), her publisher husband (Victor Ertmanis) drifts into a masochistic mid-life crisis. Oversexed and overwritten, the movie is like a head-on collision between eros and civilization, between the naked and the verbose.
By contrast, Mustard Bath is not primarily fixated on sex. But it is overripe with erotic tension. Filmed entirely in Guyana, directed by Darrell Wasyk (who won acclaim for H, a story of addiction), Mustard Bath is a pungent drama about Matthew (Michael Riley), a Toronto medical student who returns to his Guyanese birthplace after his mother’s death. A colonial in search of his past, he begins to lose his grip in the tropical heat.
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t Toronto’s film festival, the characters will be peeling back the frontiers of sex—and sanity
But what gives Mustard Bath an unusual notoriety is a scene that shows Riley getting a grip: a brief but unmistakable shot of him masturbating, fully erect.
Even Paris, France, with all the male nudity flapping through it, shows no erections—which, with so much excitement going on, seems odd. Mustard Bath has its own share of incongruities, but in the context of Riley’s raw, soul-searching performance, the masturbation scene seems utterly appropriate.
Traditionally, sex in the cinema has focused on women—or, more precisely, women’s bodies. But in the new Canadian movies, men are redressing the balance. In Cap Tourmente, Quebec star Roy Dupuis— the gay hustler in last year’s Being at Home With Claude—plays Alex, a delinquent son who comes home to a ramshackle inn run by his family on the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Alex lusts after his sister, his mother and his best friend. In the opening scene, he greets the friend with a hard punch in the stomach, followed by a long kiss on the mouth.
A gothic family drama, the movie is shot against a gorgeous landscape, an empty stretch of Charlevoix coastline. Making his feature debut, director Michel Langlois finds poetry in both the seaside setting and his star’s physique—which merge when Alex makes a show of running in and out of the water naked. But behind his uncomprehending Brando pout, the character’s psychology remains as vacant as the landscape that surrounds him.
By contrast, Le sexe des étoiles, by Quebec director Paule Baillargeon, is a thoroughly compelling drama. It is the story of Camille, a 12-year-old Montreal girl who lives with her mother and struggles to accept the fact that her father is now a transsexual named Marie-Pierre. The premise sounds gimmicky, but the movie is not.
Denis Mercier is wholly credible as the father who wears his new gender with a forced optimism. And Marianne-Coquelicot Mercier (no relation), who makes her acting debut as Camille, conveys the grave emotion of early adolescence without ever playing cute or coy. There is a no-nonsense androgyny in Camille’s long, sombre face. And Luc Picard, who plays her considerate boyfriend, a leather boy with a limp, looks
remarkably like her: they could be twins.
An amateur astronomer, Camille says: “I like the stars because they don’t have sex.” But it bothers her that the heavens are also dotted with double stars and galaxies: “Everything works by couples—it’s disgusting.” Tracing elegant connections between
the intimate and the universal, Le sexe des étoiles is an affecting, and highly original, coming-of-age movie. A story without sex— yet about sex.
Lotus Eaters, a comedy from British
Columbia, offers a much more conventional tale of conflict between sex and family. Set in the early 1960s on Galiano Island, it is about a stodgy, extremely repressed school principal named Hal (R. H. Thomson), whose moral fibre quickly becomes unravelled with the arrival of a sexy new French-Canadian teacher (Michèle-Barbara Pelletier). She shows up in a VW van, wearing a miniskirt and carrying a guitar. The children love her. And so does the principal, who leaps straight from a mid-life crisis into a torrid affair.
Meanwhile, Hal’s 10year-old daughter works magic spells to try to set things right. Her teenage sister seeks salvation in The Beatles. And their longsuffering mother (Sheila McCarthy) waits for it all to blow over. Lotus Eaters, though nicely shot by director Paul Shapiro, is a precious, sugary confection—a whimsical throwback to the kind of safe, cosy movies Canadians are expected to make. But, considering the current state of arousal, Canadian cinema may soon have a different kind of reputation to live down. □