Canada

SUMMER IN THE CITY

In Montreal these days, it’s au revoir to politics as the good times roll

BENOIT AUBIN July 30 2001
Canada

SUMMER IN THE CITY

In Montreal these days, it’s au revoir to politics as the good times roll

BENOIT AUBIN July 30 2001

SUMMER IN THE CITY

In Montreal these days, it’s au revoir to politics as the good times roll

BENOIT AUBIN

Seeing your own city featured in a big-bucks, global-market Hollywood production starring Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro is like seeing your sister all made-up, hair-doed and dressed-up in a fashion contest at the mall: “Wow! Is that you?” After viewing The Score—the heist thriller also starring Edward Norton and Angela Bassett, which opened on July 13—I swear I wanted to move there.

I already live here.

The movie was shot on location in Montreal last year, and nobody paid much attention at the time, despite the presence of giga-stars on the set. Montrealers have grown accustomed to the annoyance. Crews of haughty busybodies taking over whole neighbourhoods, blocking streets and overruling parking permits are the byproduct of a $900-million-a-year film industry that places Montreal close behind Toronto and Vancouver in the match for the title of Hollywood North.

The surprise with The Score is that Montreal plays a starring role in the movie, a defining role. Montreal is the hideaway where De Niro, a semi-retired Yankee safecracker, lives a double

life as a jazz bar owner, in a terminally cool part of town, near the Bonsecours Market.

The decision to let the city be itself was improvised, says Andre Lafond, Montreal’s film commissioner, whose job is to lure big-time shoots to town. The story was to be shot in Montreal, but the action was originally supposed to take place in San Francisco. “After a scouting tour, [director] Frank Oz and his team decided to rewrite the script on specs to locate the action in Montreal instead,” says Lafond.

As product placement goes, this is a coup of the magnitude of FedEx in Castaway., or BMW roadsters in James Bond movies. Montreal comes across as the ultimate postmodern city, with just the right mix of cobblestones and highrises. A destination both exotic and familiar, where American thugs can drive big American getaway cars through lovely, euro-chic backgrounds, and map their heist while sipping single malts in swank cafés. Thank-you very much, Hollywood. “They didn’t do that to be nice to us, of course,” Lafond says. “They played Montreal because they thought that would improve

their product, and their chances of making money with it.”

But what is the thing about the language?

A scene early in the movie calls for Brando to walk into De Niro’s bar complaining about the heat, the darkness, and then ordering extra ice cubes for his drink, all in clipped, LastTango-in-Paris French. De Niro had to master enough parlezvouz to utter “Merci, vous allez bien? Allez! Au revoir, madame” to the charming dépanneur lady who fetches his papers every morning.

No bilingual signs in Hollywood’s Montreal. All is French. Kids playing in the park where De Niro and Norton flash guns while trading secret security codes can be overheard shouting in French.

Ah boni

This is a Péquiste’s wet dream come true. After 25 years of bad press for their efforts—sometimes childish or ham-fisted—to make their city sound and feel as French as the majority of its inhabitants are, they see Montreal celebrated for being even more French than it is in real life. So, is the word out that French is cool now? A trait, and not a threat anymore?

That nuance—the size of Mount Royal —was duly noted in the Quebec media last week, of course, but nobody made a big fuss about it. The prevailing attitude was: “sure, we’re cool, whether they realize it or not, hey?”

Film commissioner Lafond, a diplomat by trade, handles the national angle prudently: “The English-Canadians who come here to visit leave with a better appreciation of the city. But the others often have a closed mind. They don’t know Montreal well, and they seem to like their stereotypes about it. It is a refreshing contrast to see how the Americans react. They speak the same language but they seem more open, more interested in what is going on here. The Quebec culture does not seem to annoy them as much as it seems to annoy some Canadians.”

This apparent indifference to Hollywood’s kudos by Montrealers—who are famously thin-skinned about criticism, or even compliments about their city—is in part explained by the fact that the movie was released smack dab in the middle of the festival season. The monthlong period that starts with celebrations of Fête Nationale, and includes Canada Day, the Carifiesta parade, the jazz festival, the Just for Laughs-Juste pour Rire comedy festival, the Festival Nuits d’Afrique, the Francofolies and the fireworks festival is the blissful time when Montrealers are totally absorbed in being cool and having fun.

In summer, Montreal lets its hair down, and it happens without the interference of either politics or snowstorms, which combine to make things more difficult the rest of the year.

Montreal enjoys a monthlong downtown block party in which everyone—locals and visitors, French-, Englishor whatever-

speakers alike—is treated to a heady mix of artful entertainment, booze and crowds that many other cities have tried to copy, but few have duplicated.

Montreal is very much like Belfast, Sarajevo or Beirut: complex cities, unable to say “we” in unison. Montreal is the only sizeable French-Canadian city, but its English-language market is roughly the size of Vancouver’s, counting bilingual Montrealers. The city headquarters the separatists and the federalists and finances both organizations. It reads The Gazette and La Presse, which, sometimes, have very different takes on the same news. Montreal is a patchwork of small communities, of citizens who would probably never agree on anything else, if they spoke to one another.

But Montreal is not armed, which makes a up great part of its charm. Citizens rub elbows in parks and restaurants, share traffic jams, jostle for parking spots, but usually let their politicians, pundits and media air their beefs and grievances for them. And

when the pundits and politicians break for summer, Montrealers have a party.

One lesson that can be learned from Montreal’s long

and turbulent history, but seems to be lost on the Parti

Québécois, is that, no matter who tries, this city is too

big, too complex and too hardheaded to be tamed, or to let itself be boxed or trapped into one simplistic definition of itself. That is what makes Montreal what it is.

Because it is French and in Quebec, Montreal is much less Canadian than other Canadian cities, but, bilingual and multicultural as it is, it is not as Québécoise as Quebec City either.

So, the squabble will resume in earnest as soon as the kids go back to school; Bernard Landry will protest against Ottawa, and the Anglos in Montreal will protest against the Péquistes in Quebec City, because that is the way life is here.

What the summer fun season suggests, though, is that, after four difficult decades of political and cultural tensions, Montreal is coming together somehow, and is learning to live with itself.

That was, no doubt, the good vibe picked up by the crew shooting The Score. C3