Like Trailer Park Boys, Claude Meunier’s La petite vie was a formula-busting sitcom with an unhinged sense of humour. A cult hit from 1993-1999, the show’s main characters Pôpa and Môman ("Joual" for pop and mom), lived in a screwy world of kitschy sets and surreal cartoon characters. Pôpa (Meunier himself) sported a hunting cap, black-framed glasses, and a Fidel Castro beard. Môman, played by a guy - Meunier’s comedy partner Serge Thériault - wore a weirdly archaic bonnet and housecoat. The show still attracts big audiences to its Radio-Canada reruns, and a 15th anniversary boxed DVD set launched recently.
Claude Meunier has just debuted as a feature film writer-director, but his Le grand départ (The Big Departure) steers clear of La petite vie’s wackiness. A mocking portrayal of middle-class desperation, the picture opens on a middle-aged doctor called Jean-Paul (Marc Messier) working up the cojones to tell his depressing family that he will no longer endure the thwarted life they impose on him. Jean-Paul has fallen head over heels for Nathalie (Hélène Bourgeois-Leclerc), a young artist with a sunny smile and a tastefully titillating wardrobe. In contrast, Jean-Paul’s sourpuss wife Céline (Guylaine Tremblay) is so clueless, she tells a black priest that she’s “always been fascinated by the misery of Africa.”
The kids are also a drag. Pudgy 23-year-old son Guylain (Patrick Drolet) brings his laptop to the dinner table, probably to explore his burgeoning foot fetish, while his depressed sister Myriam (Sophie Desmarais) glares at the world from her teenage wasteland. Jean-Paul’s best buddy and fellow medico Henri (Rémy Girard) lives for Scrabble and his wife Pauline’s (Diane Lavallée) resemblance to Nana Mouskouri.
The movie tracks Jean-Paul to a fake happy ending and then jolts into Le grand départ’s sardonic joke. You can’t escape dysfunctional families because they will come after you like ghouls and drag you back into their mess. In one key scene, Jean-Paul dances happily with Nathalie when Céline calls to inform him that she’s in their flooded basement, wading in shit.
Denise Robert, producer of Le grand départ, came full circle when her new picture premiered in December. Invited guests waded through a raging storm to get into the Place des Arts gala, just as they did last year when Robert launched her husband Denys Acand’s L’âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness), also a satirical comedy about male angst, influenced by American Beauty.
The industry hopes that 2008’s last big releases, Le grand départ and Babine (see December’s Inside Quebec), will gross the kind of serious box-office that eluded recent films. By mid-January, Meunier’s picture took in $1,423,698 while Babine earned $2,709,079.
Speaking of 2008, the past year was neither the best nor the worst of times. For sure, no event could match brilliant successes like Denys Arcand’s Les Invasions barbare (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) gobbling up international awards, including an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, and scoring bigtime at the box-office. Insiders are lamenting the absence of hot items like Invasions or C.R.A.Z.Y. while worrying about diminishing viewer interest in local pictures. In 2005, they point out, 11 Quebec-made movies earned at least $1 million and total output nabbed 18.2% of province-wide returns, an unimaginable share for English Canadian movies. Concerned, the organizers of Ciné Québec, an annual industry retreat in the Laurentian Mountains, decided to schedule discussions of the audience erosion.
But even though 2008’s single commercial megahit was Cruising Bar 2, not exactly a shining example of exciting cinema, solid movies like Michael Mackenzie’s Adam’s Wall were released during the past year. At year's end, Quebec films took 9.3% of the box-office, also unimaginable in English Canada.
Moreover, six of the Toronto International Film Festival Group’s 10 best Canadian films were autered by Quebeckers. The honourees are Madeline Piujug Ivalu’s and Marie-Helene Cousineau’s Before Tomorrow, Léa Pool’s Maman est chez le coiffeur (Mommy’s at the Hairdresser’s), Luc Bourdon’s La mémoire des anges (The Memory of Angels), Philippe Falardeau's C'est pas moi, je le jure!, (It’s Not Me, I Swear!), Rodrique Jean's Lost Song, which won the best Canadian film award at this year's festival, and Benoît Pilon's Ce qu'il faut pour vivre (The Necessities of Life), Canada’s Oscar-nomination contender.
In December, the San Francisco Film Society, partnering with Quebec cultural agency, SODEC, hosted a week of Québécois movies, and the Sundance Film Festival programmed two Quebec productions. Screening in competition, Ben Addelman and Samir Mallal’s doc Nollywood Babylon races through Nigeria’s topsy-turvy capitol, Lagos, on a tour of one of the biggest and most outlandish movie industries in the world (see November’s Inside Quebec). On the Festival-Go-Round for months, Denis Villeneuve’s Next Floor (see June’s Inside Quebec), a brilliantly executed, wildly surreal short, keeps winning brass rings, and will probably grab another one in Park City.
And now, in no particular order, are my 2008 Top Ten Ups and Downs for Quebec cinema and TV:
In an ongoing drama that began at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival, one of the most anticipated pictures in Canadian film history aroused mostly disdainful critical reaction and underwhelmed audiences. The normally publicity-shy Oscar-winner Denys Arcand engaged in a media outreach campaign to save his ambitious L’âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness), but with little success. Trying to explain why this well performed, sporadically witty look at a 21st century nowhereman tanked would mean delving into the mysterious DNA of movies that work on every level.
While L’âge des ténèbres sputtered, Lyne Charlebois' directorial debut, Borderline, stirred audiences and critics with its depiction of a young woman’s wild ride into sexual promiscuity, drug addiction, and familial madness. Based on two quasi-autobiographical novels by Marie-Sissi Labrèche, the cleverly designed film tracks its main character by juxtaposing three different periods in her life: haunted child, 20-year-old party animal, and 30-year-old seeking the redemptive power of art. Almost a year after the picture’s release, few Quebec films have matched Borderline’s emotional and sexual heat, or Isabelle Blais' body and soul-baring performance. At the Toronto International Film Festival, Charlebois picked up a Special Jury Citation for Best Canadian First Feature Film.
Télévision Quatre Saisons, dubbed the “black sheep” of Quebec broadcasters partly because of its catering to the softcore porn needs of Quebec suburbanites, sought bankruptcy protection. Apparently, naked-chicks-in-a-hot tub programming doesn’t keep it up for the BMW-driving inhabitants of Laval.
When Montreal film distributor and production company Remstar took over TQS, The company’s chief execs, brothers Julien and Maxime Rémillard, immediately annoyed the media milieu by eliminating anything resembling serious news coverage. Since TQS stumbled, its audience share, once a respectable 12% to 15%, has been in a 6-7% rut. The Remillards’ rejuvenation strategies haven’t cranked up the numbers, and their relations with employees are wobbly. No one ever lets the Remillards forget that the family wealth supporting their entrepreneurial manoeuvres derives from the “waste management” business.
To no-one’s surprise, the television show of the year turned out to be Radio-Canada’s Les Lavigeurs, la vraie histoire. The slickly written and directed series tells the tragi-comic, negative Cinderella story of a working class family that won almost $8 million of Quebec lottery money. Back in the 1980s, this impossible dream came true for the Lavigeurs, and then quickly devolved into a nightmare.
Les Lavigeurs dominated Quebec’s Gemeaux Awards for 2008, winning, among other prizes, the Gemeaux for Best Script and Direction of a Dramatic Series, Best Dramatic Actor and Actress, and Best Dramatic Series. DVDs of the miniseries are a hot item.
Alliance Lives On
Anticipating the deepening involvement of government in private companies, the Societé General de Financement du Quebec channelled $100 million into Alliance Films. The agency doled out the money on condition Alliance’s head office check out of Toronto and head for Montreal, where the hugely successful distribution company was created in the 1980’s. After taking several body blows, and facing the rapid growth deep-pocketed competitors, Alliance moved to take control of its debts and seemed to regain its equilibrium. Whew, sighed bureaucrats at the SGF.
The sudden downfall of distribution and production company, Christal Films, was a disaster for Quebec’s film industry during a year of creative and commercial disappointments. Christal was in the process of rapid expansion under the leadership of president Christian Larouche, who finessed the 2007 hits, Les Trois P’Tits Cochons, and A vos marques...Party!, a teen comedy with franchise potential. If Christal could go down, players worried, then who is safe?
Adieu M. Harper
For many Quebeckers, Steven Harper’s Bill C-10, an attempt to control Canadian audio-visual content by cutting tax credits to supposedly naughty productions, was stupid at best and dangerously totalitarian at worst. The fear and loathing aroused by C-10 inflamed the industry’s reaction to arts cuts later in the year. A Don’t Trust Harper message got out to the public, and when election time rolled around, the Prime Minister’s disastrously timed arts policies probably kept his coveted majority government out of his grasp. Although Harper eventually backed off on C-10, he eventually okayed similarly Draconian legislation that would have toppled his government had he not shut down parliament in early December. The culture war in Quebec was a harbinger of the confidence crisis looming on the horizon.
Maman Travels Well
Léa Pool, one of Quebec’s most reliable moviemakers, charmed audiences with Maman est chez le coiffeur (Mommy’s at the Hairdresser’s), a fine-tuned story about what happens when a mother abandons her family. Graced by excellent performances, the movie played numerous international festivals, including Toronto’s. In December, it closed the promotional and networking confab, Cinéma du Québec à Paris, and has been selling well in various markets.
Movie of the Year
It would be interesting to see Léa Pool’s Maman est chez le coiffeur on a double bill with Philippe Falardeau’s C'est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me I Swear!). Getting dumped by mom haunted Pool’s screenwriter, Isabelle Hébert and her brother Bruno, whose novels about the trauma were Falardeau’s source material.
More than just a top Quebec release, C'est pas moi, je le jure! is one of 2008’s best films. Darker and funnier than Maman est chez le coiffeur, the movie’s pint-sized anti-hero Léon (Antoine L'Ecuyer) acts out his criminal and self-destructive fantasies with such determination and glee, he is both disturbing and hilarious. The kid is an enfant terrible viewers will never forget.
The Immortal Serge Losique
For some an up, for others a down, not only did the Montreal World Film Festival survive into its 32nd year, but 2008’s edition was one of the most successful in recent years. The MWFF’s founder and president, Serge Losique, has survived many attempts to blow him out of the water and drive a stake through his heart. This year, Losique didn’t merely survive, he basked in the glory of a Léger Marketing look into the 2008 fest’s benefits to Montreal’s tourist industry, particularly the $21 million it brought to the city. On top of that, the MWFF made it into the 2009 edition of Le Petit Larousse. In its article about Montreal, the venerable French reference book lists the film fest as one of the city’s main attractions. Losique must be amused that Larousse ignores Montreal’s hugely popular Jazz and Comedy festivals.