Film

DOWN BY THE BAYS

Destiny is the driver in two new Canadian movies: a grim tragedy and a surreal fable

Brian D. Johnson February 3 2003
Film

DOWN BY THE BAYS

Destiny is the driver in two new Canadian movies: a grim tragedy and a surreal fable

Brian D. Johnson February 3 2003

DOWN BY THE BAYS

Film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

Destiny is the driver in two new Canadian movies: a grim tragedy and a surreal fable

WE TALK ABOUT Canadian cinema, as if it exists. But even if the “two nations” concept has run its course politically, there are two distinct cinemas in this country—English and French—and their personalities are poles apart. Just take a look at two movies being released this month: English Canada’s The Bay of Love and Sorrows and Quebec’s Chaos and Desire (originally La turbulence des fluides in French). Superficially, there are some striking parallels. Both are landscape films set on bays near the Gulf of St. Lawrence—New Brunswick’s Miramichi Bay and Quebec’s Baie-Comeau. Both feature cocky protagonists who come home from the Far East to find themselves in dangerous waters. And both narratives are powered by a gothic undertow of destiny.

Yet they’re as different as a funeral and a baptism. The Bay of Love and Sorrows is a bleak descent into a kind of back-road realism, with barely a wisp of redemption. Whatever its merits, it can only reinforce the common perception that Canadian films are grim and austere. Chaos and Desire is a cosmic fable in which anything seems possible. (After Maelstrom's talking fish and Un crabe dans la tête’s rapture of the deep, it’s yet another bizarre example of the aquatic surrealism favoured by a generation of Quebec directors who seem to have water on the brain.) Both films, by the way, are beautifully photographed and impeccably acted. But each is so extreme in its own fashion that you leave the theatre wondering how anyone dared make them in the first place.

Set in 1973, The Bay of Love and Sorrows is a story of class conflict and betrayal. Michael (Jonathan Scarfe), the son of a wealthy judge, comes home from a year’s travels in Asia full of talk about communal living. With his daddy’s yacht and an Olds convertible, Michael is the rich kid on a latesummer joyride to utopia. He rents a rundown farm, romances a white-trash spitfire named Madonna (Joanne Kelly), and impresses the hell out of her pill-popping teenage brother, Silver (Christopher Jacot).

But most smitten is Carrie (Elaine Cassidy), a naive maiden who’s engaged to Michael’s old friend Tom (Zachary Bennett). Tom’s a stoical farmer who’s been caring for his retarded brother since their parents’ death. And he doesn’t have time for Michael’s big ideas. So instead, Michael falls in with Everette (Peter Outerbridge), a sinister ex-con who was once jailed by Michael’s father. Everette has a big idea of his own. It involves a drug deal. And, of course, it will go terribly wrong.

Adapting his own novel with writer-director Tim Southam, David Adams Richards has telescoped a complex plot. And in his feature debut, Southam shows a sensitive eye for composition. With rich tableaus, spare dialogue and an ethereal soundtrack, the film evokes the novel’s flatly ominous tone. But it lacks the juice. The novel’s carnality seems absent. And there’s not enough passion established between Carrie and Tom, or Carrie and Michael, before the long slide to perdition sets in.

Still, the performances are strong. As the tarnished golden boy, Scarfe has a glint of movie-star charisma. As the slow-fused villain, Outerbridge conveys a creepy menace, while Jacot is like a walking firecracker. In her first screen role, Newfoundland’s Joanne Kelly plays the sexy tough girl with savage assurance. And as the sweet, sacrificial virgin, Cassidy proves that her delicate incandescence in Atom Egoyan’s Felicia’s Journey was no flash in the pan.

But the actors seem bound by engraved archetypes. As the narrative shuttles back and forth between characters, it’s hard to pull emotional focus on one in particular. The alchemy of adaptation is a fragile thing,

Both pictures are so extreme that you leave the theatre wondering how anyone dared make them in the first place

even when done by the author—or especially when done by the author. Richards has compressed a complex story rife with criminal secrets and cookie jars of hidden cash. He has retooled the main hinges of the plot, making Michael a budding art photographer. And he has reduced the death toll. But with dark deeds driven by tangential motives, there’s still more tragedy than the narrative can bear. And no matter how lovingly crafted, The Bay of Love and Sorrows harbours more sorrow than love. One could argue that life’s like that. But at the movies we expect something more.

Chaos and Desire could serve equally well as a title for The Bay of Love and Sorrows, or almost any other movie you can think of. It’s one of those generic titles that are used to translate foreign-language fare into Hollywood English. But you don’t have to be a French major to decipher the original title, which serves as a much more precise description of this wildly eccentric movie from Quebec.

Pascale Bussières stars as Alice, a seismologist working in Tokyo who is sent back to her birthplace of Baie-Comeau to inves-

tigate a weird phenomenon: the tides have stopped. She arrives to find the weather unbearably humid. The air smells like sex and people are behaving strangely. Each night a young Chinese girl sleepwalks past the window of a diner, where the world-weary owner (Geneviève Bujold) takes refuge from insomnia. A hunky water-bomber pilot named Marc Vandal (Jean-Nicolas Verreault) flirts with Alice and tells her to look him up, but she finds his number has been ripped from every phone book in town. Meanwhile a lesbian friend from her student days (Julie Gayet) shows up out of the blue and volunteers to work as her assistant.

The brisk, no-nonsense Alice simmers with frustration, both sexual and scientific. She’s recovering from a broken heart, impatient to erase her past, but emotions keep surfacing like water welling up through sand. There’s nothing subtle about the symbolism in this tale of a woman who can’t swim studying the movement of water. And in the end, writer-director Manon Briand (2 Secondes) ties up the various strands of her metaphysical riddle with preposterous symmetry. But the story remains true to its own

wacky internal logic, and weaves a beguiling magic.

As always, Bussières is a magnetic presence. Onscreen she’s like a cat: sleek, self-possessed and wilfully enigmatic. And from the opening frames, her character seems trapped by the film’s momentum. As a friend reminds Alice that “even the most careless fish return to their birthplace to die,” the camera cuts from a shot of her watching a procession of sushi on a restaurant conveyor belt in Tokyo to a moving sidewalk at the airport. Briand juxtaposes images with surreal wit reminiscent of Robert Lepage, and seems preoccupied by some of the same themes—things Japanese, synchronicity and the turnstile between science and faith.

Despite the fanciful premise, you sense there’s something profoundly personal going on in the seismic baptism of La turbulence des fluides. Briand, in fact, has more than a casual connection to water. Ever since her childhood, she’s been an ardent swimmer. “It’s the thing that gives me the most plea-

sure,” she told me in an interview last week. “Nothing is stronger for me. It’s also beautiful to shoot.” That explains why she volunteered to direct Heart—The Marilyn Bell Story, a TV movie about the brave schoolgirl who swam Lake Ontario in 1954.

Like Alice in Chaos, the 38-year-old filmmaker found herself being pulled back to her birthplace. Baie-Comeau maybe best known as the hometown of Brian Mulroney, but it’s also where Briand lived until she was 17. “What I like about it now is what I hated when I was young,” she said. “It’s remote, it’s wild. You can be alone. I didn’t plan on going to shoot there. I just imagined the idea of a woman looking for the disappearance of the tide. But then I realized I couldn’t shoot it anywhere else.”

Curiously, just four months after Briand finished shooting her seismological fable, Baie-Comeau was rocked by a moderate quake. Like Alice, the director is a skeptic. “I resist mystical theories,” she says. “I need proof of everything.” But in returning home to make a movie that searches for the roots of coincidence, she has found an undeniable resonance. lîfl