Inside Quebec - January 2011
By Maurie Alioff
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Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and taught screenwriting at Montreal’s Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, he is affiliated with the Quebec media industry publication, CTVM.Info. His articles have appeared in various publications, including Canadian Cinematographer, POV Magazine, and The New York Times.
Absent from Northernstars.ca for the past few months, I’d like to reboot Inside Quebec with my Top Ten List of people and events in 2010.
1. Picture of the Year
Although Quebec producers continued to wet dream about replicating box office triumphs like De père en flic (2009), several high-profile 2010 releases ventured far from the mainstream. Financially risky plunges into emotional black holes included Robin Aubert's ghoulish À l'origine d'un cri; Julie Hivon's twisted relationship psychodrama Tromper le silence; Louis Bélanger's tragi-comic road movie, Route 132; Daniel “Podz” Grou’s raw-as-a-bleeding-wound 10 ½; Denis Coté’s eerie father-daughter story, Curling; and of course, 2010’s top film story, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (Scorched). Going dark may be a write-off in Quebec, but overseas, it plays better than popular tear-jerkers and yuk-fests. Charlotte Mickie, Exec VP at Entertainment One Limited, which is handling Incendies, told Montreal Gazette entertainment reporter Brendan Kelly that “local crowd-pleasers don't travel."
Following Incendies’ World premiere at the Venice Film Festival, its September release in Quebec, and unanimously favourable reviews, the film played the Telluride Fest and TIFF, which dubbed it Canadian movie of the year. Sold to numerous countries around the world, (Sony Pictures Classics distributes in the U.S.), the picture's nomination for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar boosted the entire Canadian industry. On top of that, Incendies got slotted into the Sundance Film Festival’s prestigious Spotlight Section, and during its Quebec release, it earned $2.6 million. This was such a good return for a demanding picture, producers Luc Déry and Kim McCraw of micro_scope, which made Incendies with France’s TS Productions, admitted that the film’s box-office knocked their socks off.
Villeneuve’s follow-up to Polytechnique, his jet-black depiction of the 1989 massacre of female students at the University of Montreal’s engineering school, adapts a respected play by Wajdi Mouawad. Eliminating many of the theatre piece’s lengthy monologues, the intensely visual movie opens on an unsettling scene depicting small boys having their heads shaved somewhere in the Middle East, and builds to a shocker of a twist that will remind some viewers of the reveals in Polanski’s Chinatown.
The storyline kicks in when twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette), learn from a notary (Rémy Girard) that their mother's will makes a bizarre demand on them. They must deliver mysterious sealed envelopes to their Middle-Eastern father, who they thought was dead, and to a brother no one ever told them about.
As soon as Jeanne returns to her homeland, and the quest begins, Villeneuve’s movie takes on a character and texture very unusual for a Quebec film. Incendies is a mainly Arab-language story unfolding in a world of sunny valleys and deep olive groves, a beautiful world traumatized by a nightmarish Civil War between Christians and Muslims.
Strongly suggestive of Lebanese history, its unnamed setting filmed by André Turpin in Jordan, Incendies crosscuts between two time frames. On one track we follow Jeanne and Simon’s present-day investigation, aided by the notary Lebel, and on the other, their mother Nawal’s tragic past is revealed. In the film’s first flashback, teenage Nawal (Lubna Azabal) watches in horror as her brothers shoot down her Muslim lover and father of her unborn child. A pariah despised by her family, Nawal loses her baby as soon as he is born, and then, as she sets off in search of him, she witnesses apocalyptic horrors that suck her deeper and deeper into a vortex of cruelty.
The deep trauma at the core of the film shock contrasts with the beauty of the terrain; in an idyllic village, the disgraced girl's grandmother wants to kill her. Eventually, the old woman becomes protective, but it’s one of the film’s rare instances of human decency lighting up the darkness. The characters in Incendies are mangled by the brutal machinery of war and of ancient vendettas.
The film’s climactic turning point, its most brutal sequence, is a brilliantly staged massacre shot almost entirely from the point of view of the victims trapped on a bus. Terrifyingly, the killers terrorize and murder with calm efficiency as if they’re workers on a construction job, or soldiers conducting a routine military operation. During this sequence and others, Villeneuve displays an evolving ability to build tension and drive it to the breaking point. That’s probably one of the reasons why the trade paper Variety has placed him on its list of ten top directors to watch in 2011.
Click here to watch the trailer for Incendies.
2. Runners-Up: 10 ½, Route 132, and Curling
Daniel Grou’s rapid follow-up to his blood-soaked revenge drama, Les Sept jours du talion (7 Days, 2010) takes him from depictions of unbearable physical and psychic pain to a brutally realistic descent into the emotional torture chamber of a deeply disturbed 10 ½-year-old boy. Tommy (played with uncanny believability by Robert Naylor) convulses with rage, screams like a banshee, slams into walls, engages in weird sexual acts, and makes life really hard for his dedicated therapist (Claude Legault).
Opening with a disturbing blowjob that provokes a vicious beating, 10 ½ moves into childhood horror that makes Linda Blair’s Exorcist paroxysms seem tame. Tommy has huge, angelic eyes that are at odds with the bottomless pain in his face, his unstoppable rages, his antic fart sounds, his squirming and wriggling and masturbating. Throughout the movie, the jeopardy for the character is that he could end up as a chronic psychiatric patient, or a violent criminal.
In 7 Days, Claude Legault played a doctor obsessed with avenging his young daughter’s rape and murder. In 10 ½, the currently ultra-hot actor incarnates the flip side of obsession, relentlessly trying to save rather than destroy. Deliberately grungy-looking and like 7 Days, unenhanced by music, Grou’s film builds to an ambiguous ending that implies either tentative hope for the future, or endless cycles of more of the same. One wonders what kind of pain is next on the agenda for the filmmaker who calls himself Podz.
To watch the trailer for 10 ½, click here.
In Route 132, Louis Belanger’s follow-up to his English language debut, The Timekeeper, and yet another of this talented moviemaker’s probes into turbulent male emotions, a professor (Francois Papineau) is so grief-stricken by the death of his young son, he escapes the situation by taking off with a rascally old friend (Alexis Martin, who co wrote the script) he runs into on the street.
As this road movie builds into a macho take on Thelma and Louise, the two guys connect with country life. Deadly serious Gilles and joker Bob meet rural people who seem to be living in a Québecois time warp, except for a young guy who babbles away about Asian women, for him priestesses of intangibly mysterious beauty. Comic, melancholic, elegiac, comic, Route 132 is a serious minded film with an absurdist sense of humour. After all, the protagonist is an academic who slips effortlessly into sticking up convenience stores.
As the characters continue their journey along Route 132, the longest road in Quebec, the movie constantly shifts back and forth from sad to funny. In one touching moment, an old lady is dying with her memories; in another, Giles and Bob try to pull off a ridiculous heist. Route 132 also manages to sneak in social commentary, for instance about crappy institutions that abuse the elderly.
And by the end of the picture, the churches, the cabins, the gorgeous landscapes, the sense of a world out of time, suggest an almost extinct reality that despite the inescapable human pain its inhabitants suffer, is healthier and more beautiful than the cityscape Gilles and Bob have left behind. In this reality, Gilles gets himself into deep shit, and yet he seems to find peaceful acceptance of the tragedy that almost destroyed him. During a press conference at the 2010 Montreal World Film Festival, which opened with Route 132, Belanger explained that on one level his film is about the depressing “loss of the towns on the periphery of the city.”
In Curling, Denis Coté’s latest release, a rural handyman called Jean-François Sauvageau (Emmanuel Bilodeau) lives in wintry isolation with his young daughter Julyvonne (Bilodeau’s actual daughter Philomène), barely connecting with other human beings. Perhaps François wants to protect Julyvonne from the nastiness of the world. After all, when she finally begins to gain a little independence, she wanders into the woods near their remote house and sees dead bodies in the snow. And François himself finds a severely injured young boy lying by the side of the highway.
Perhaps François believes that Julyvonne is especially vulnerable. As the movie begins, we discover that she has a serious eye problem, and there are intimations she may be somewhat intellectually challenged. Whatever the reasons for their hermetic life, a cop’s lengthy interrogation of François implies something illicit is happening, and an atmosphere of guilt hangs over everything that follows.
The interrogation takes place on a snow blasted two-lane highway right out of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo. In fact, certain aspects of Curling recall Coen Brothers pictures, not to mention Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismäki’s deadpan, absurdist humour. This is a movie in which a bowling alley and a curling rink are the focal points of existence, not that Côté is looking down his nose at the humble pleasures of people who live in the middle of nowhere.
Kennedy (Roc Lafortune), owner of the bowling alley and François’ boss is a kind of genial bon-vivant who introduces Françoise to burgundy-haired Goth chick Isabelle (Sophie Desmarais), an exotic creature who knows some Spanish and claims she can read fortunes. For sure, she and Kennedy have enough magic to open François up to the world, and give it meaning. Otherwise, it’s a world so meaningless, Julie does nothing about the corpses in the woods, and François disposes of the injured kid he finds on the highway.
Coté, who favours suggestive longshots and images that are held to the point of uneasiness, is a one-time film critic who has now made five features. Curling is the second of his titles to win the best director prize at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. Emmanuel Bilodeau, whose performance in this movie is controlled and nuanced, took the best actor award.
3. Hit of the Year
While Incendies has performed well at the box-office, the film’s Quebec theatrical returns are about a million less than Sylvain Archambault’s aesthetically underachieving Piché: Entre Ciel Et Terre (Between Heaven and Earth). Piché is the real-life pilot, onetime hedonist and weed-transporter, who glided a powerless airbus to safety. The local release of the wobbly picture took in $3.5 million, a return that would be more impressive for an English-Canadian film than for Quebec’s top money-earner in 2010.
Another hockey picture, Lance et compte (He Shoots, He Scores), was released in late November and will certainly figure in 2011 box-office stats. The theatrical version of the beloved TV series, Lance et compte picked up $2.3 million by the New Year, and is still onscreen as I write. One of the year’s most anticipated pictures, returned-from-Hollywood moviemaker Yves Simoneau’s cop comedy L'appât, took in $1 million between its mid-December release and early January. More on this one next month.
4. “Rayon International” of the Year
Quebec’s culture and entertainment milieu constantly obsesses on its “rayon international,” i.e. how much heat and light it’s generating elsewhere in the world. There is even an annual Prix-Jutra for the most successful movie outside of Quebec.
In 2010, the tastiest recognition Quebec product received was from Hollywood. Spielberg collaborators Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall’s are going ahead with their plan to remake Emile Gaudreault’s hit comedy De pere en flic (Fathers and Guns). The film’s original producer, Denise Robert, and Gaudreault will be credited. No cast yet, but Peter Craig (Ben Affleck’s The Town) is wrangling the script.
Meanwhile in TV-Land, James Gandolfini is producing an HBO adaptation of Taxi 0-22, a series that reels in up to one million viewers per episode on the TVA network. The show features popular actor-comedian-writer Patrick Huard (Bon Cop, Bad Cop) as a motor-mouthed, politically incorrect cab driver trash-talking to his passengers while cruising around town in his Crown Victoria.
The projected HBO version, slated to be written by Oscar-nominated Kenneth Lonergan, (Analyze This, You Can Count On Me, Gangs of New York), is a major coup not just for Huard and the original show. It’s a shot in the arm for a production industry that yearns to create exportable work.
5. Ignored Movie of the Year
Back in November, Jephte Bastien's Sortie 67, the defiant young moviemaker’s striking movie about Haitian gang bangers in Montreal's St. Michel District, premiered to a packed house. Gorgeous women struck poses on the red carpet outside the Imperial Theatre. Sleek dudes emanated cool as Bastien introduced his film, proud that it was now ”inscribed in the annals of Québecois cinema.” and when he the screening ended, a dreadlocked ex-gangstah told me that the movie made him cry:” That was my life on the screen.”
Sortie 67 seemed ripe for success. The buzz was strong, the reviews were good. And observers like Montreal filmmaker Jacob Tierney had just shaken up the Quebec culture scene by telling it that local cinema needed to open up to characters who aren’t white, French-speaking, and “pure-laine.” Bastien’s movie with its style, substance, and seductive cool looked like it could be a barrier-breaker, “an entry point,” as Bastian said. The movie works out serious themes, but at the same time, it flaunts enough guns, sex, music and ‘tude to draw audiences. I thought people, especially young people, would flock to Sortie 67.
The picture opens with a frame story hook. Jecko, (Henri Pardo), a gangbanger who has decided to renounce the gangs, climbs out of an SUV to be greeted by gun toting hoodlums, one of whom snarls, “Welcome to hell, mothafuckah.” The movie flashes back and recounts the events that lead to this moment.
After Jecko the child’s (Shevon Jeremy Noëlas) jealousy-crazed, white Québécois father (Sylvio Archambault) hammers his Haitian mother to death, he suffers suffers through various foster care nightmares until as a teenager (Anthony Clerveaux), he hooks up with a world of drug dealing and petty crime.
Before you can say crack cocaine, Jecko becomes the apt pupil of a gang leader called Brooklyn, whose charisma is heightened by chiaroscuro lighting strategies that are sophisticated for such a low-budget project. At times, Brooklyn (Benz Antoine in the film’s strongest performance) comes across like a cult leader who utters credos like “The law of the jungle protects only lions” and “When evil is done well, there is no evil.” Ultimately, Bastien’s movie becomes a morality play depicting Jecho’s awakening and struggle for redemption.
Despite some overdetermined acting, reliance on clichés, and clumsy moments, the movie has real strength, particularly, as observers have noted, in its specificity. This is a gangbanger story grounded in the sights and sounds of a Montreal neighbourhood where people speak French, Creole, and American-style English. For Bastien, who like Brooklyn likes to philosophize, the film tells the truth, and “without truth, lies triumph.”
6. Festival of the Year
As I enthused in my July and August columns, the FanTasia Genre Film Festival catapulted onto a new level during its three-week July marathon. After opening with the premiere of a major studio release (The Sorcerer’s Apprentice), the event overloaded its fans’ senses at numerous sold-out screenings, took a shot at live theatre with Nevermore: an Evening with Edgar Allan Poe, and staged a presentation of The Complete Metropolis, the latest version of Fritz Lang’s futuristic masterpiece. Accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau’s music for a 13-piece orchestra, the silent film played to 3000 mesmerized spectators in Place des Arts. And after fourteen years of virtually 1gnoring FanTasia, cultural agencies and the mainstream media granted it their
seal of approval. For one thing, it brings in tourists.
Meanwhile, the Montreal World Film Festival, the Festival du nouveau cinema, and other top events held their own. In August, Le Devoir’s no bullshit critic Odile Tremblay wrote that the Montreal World Film Festival was getting its lustre back, and Louis Belanger, whose Route 132 opened the 2010 edition, told media “This festival has been a very good launching pad for my films.” Denis Villeneuve, who screened his new picture Incendies (see above) at the Toronto International Film Festival, agrees that the MWFF bolsters films in Quebec, but not anywhere else on the planet. He told Le Journal de Montreal, “The truth is that the World Film Festival no longer exists on the world stage. It is an excellent festival for Montreal, a municipal festival that presents films from all over.”
Countering this view, the fest shot out a press release announcing, ”The Montreal World Film Festival leads all prominent Quebec festivals in international media coverage.” According to a study by Montreal-based Influence Communication, media around the world, including in China and Japan, focused on the MWFF more than the International Jazz Festival, Just for Laughs, and other prestigious Quebec pow-wows.
For sure, the festival’s almost 80-year-old president Serge Losique (pictured at left) takes his international connections and concerns seriously. When Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, president of the MWFF’s jury in 2009, was arrested for his political stance, the festival programmed a retrospective of the persecuted moviemaker’s films. And when Panahi was sentenced to a frighteningly long prison term, Losique wrote an open letter that read, “It is with great dismay that we have received the news of his (Panahi’s) 6-year prison sentence and his 20-year banishment from filmmaking and the freedom of expression. It is with immense sadness that we contemplate the absence of his voice and his great art … The MWFF has always been a staunch defender of the artistic and human rights of filmmakers regardless of their political circumstances. Just as the Festival has always staunchly defended a diversity of cinematic cultures.”
As for the MWFF’s 2010 programming, despite the fact that most of the year’s hot new titles played Toronto, the MWFF screened plenty of worthwhile films. For instance, Iranian-American Naghmeh Shirkhan’s The Neighbour, which premiered in the First feature competition, deploys subtle film craft to trace the lives of two westernized Iranian women living in the same Vancouver apartment building.
In November, the 39th edition of the Festival du nouveau cinema opened with Daniel “Podz” Grou’s 10 ½ and closed with Denis Cote’s Curling (see above). The invariably sprightly fest screened 295 films from 51 countries, less than the MWFF’s volume, but still impressive. The top attractions, most of which have played TIFF and other festivals, included Claire Denis’ fever dream about colonial Africa, White Material; Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brilliantly executed, but wildly over-determined Biutiful; Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s lush, teasingly enigmatic, and strangely haunting Cannes Palme d’Or Winner, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives; Mike Leigh’s meditation on happiness, Another Year; Catherine Breillat’s latest excursion into Fairyland, The Sleeping Beauty; Olivier Assayas bio-pic of a legendary terrorist, Carlos; and Jean-Luc Godard’s typically gnarly Film Socialism.
At the end of the event, the People’s Choice Award went to Japanese director Tetsuya Nakashima’s Confessions, a crazily assembled, visually explosive film that takes the Asian revenge picture to new heights of mad glory. Confessions played in the FNC’s envelope-pushing Temps Ø section, as did David Wants to Fly, David Sieveking’s whimsical exposé of the questionnable power elite behind the Transcendental Meditation movement, and his disillusionment with his hero, TM practitioner David Lynch. Watching the doc, my own veneration for Mr. D. also got a little dented.
The FNC selection that has stayed with me the most is French-Argentinian provocateur Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void. The FNC screened the 2 hour & 40 minute version of this psychedelic odyssey entirely from the POV of an American club kid/minor drug dealer (Nathaniel Brown) who gets shot dead in a Tokyo bar, and then out of his body, floats, soars, and dives into close encounters with his friends, his beloved sister (Paz de la Huerta), and the swirling visions that are leading him to where the Tibetan Book of the Dead suggests we all go.
The hyper-kinetic credit sequence for Enter the Void
can be found on YouTube.
As for the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), the 13th edition attracted about 31,000 people to 100 docs from around the world. One of the fest highlights was an appearance by quintessential rock and roller Lou Reed, showing his first film, a portrait of his elderly cousin, Red Shirley. RIDM also benefited from a master class given by cinéma vérité innovators D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus.
7. Sex Queen of the Year
According to a study, when Quebeckers grab their computer mice, they click big for Lady Gaga, Sandra Bullock, and Anne-Marie Losique. Who’s Anne-Marie Losique? For one thing, she’s president of the Montreal World Film Festival Serge Losique’s daughter. But that doesn’t explain all the clicking.
For years, Losique has produced and hosted numerous jokey cable TV shows about sex, shows like Sex-Shop and Strip Club. Dressed almost as skimpily as her topless porn star guests, she lolls around on couches with them, flashing lollipop-licking looks at the camera. And back in the days when she did a movie show on the Quebec equivalent of Much Music, she interviewed Ben Affleck, bouncing and giggling on his lap. Losique has even published a Madonna-like sex photo book in which she gambols through various lesbian scenarios in settings all over Montreal.
In October, Losique reached for a new career plateau when her company, Diffusion International, launched Vanessa, this country’s first French-language adult-entertainment specialty channel. (Yes, an English-language version will follow.) As Ms.Lauper once put it, Girls just want to have fun.
8. TIFF to Quebec: Oooo La La!
As in past years, Quebec movie people are delighted by the Toronto International Film Festival’s embrace of the work done here. TIFF screened Denis Villeneuve's Incendies, Louis Belanger’s Route 132, Denis Coté’s Curling (see above); Jacob Tierney’s latest, Good Neighbours; Deborah Chow’s The High Cost of Living, Catherine Martin's Trois temps apres la mort d'Anna, and Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires. As the festival wrapped, Incendies picked up TIFF’s best Canadian feature prize, which came with $30,000 in cash awarded by the city of Toronto. And Montreal-based Deborah Chow’s The High Cost of Living was named best Canadian first feature, an honour enhanced by a $15,000 prize.
The cake was iced when TIFF announced its Top Ten list for 2010, and 5 of the pictures were from Quebec: Les Amours Imaginaires, Curling, The High Cost of Living, Incendies, and Last Train Home.
9. France to Dolan: Oooo La La!
Since last year, the buzz on Montreal’s Xavier Dolan has quietened. The young moviemaker and actor’s follow-up to J'ai tué ma mere (2009) did not bring Quebec’s media to the kind of howling climaxes that greeted Dolan’s first feature, nor did Les amours imaginaires perform spectacularly well at the box-office.
On the other hand, the French, who don’t normally fall for Quebec movies, got a major jones for Les amours imaginaires. The reviews gushed. Moviegoers bought a lot of tickets. It’ll be interesting to see how his next picture, the transsexual romance Laurence Anyways, plays out at home and abroad.
10. Sinking Fortunes
As 2010 ended, producers in Québec immediately began to agonize over a major drop in box office returns. In 2009, local movies commanded 13% of the market. In 2010 the numbers fell to 9%. Industry players are attributing the slump to the lack of a major hit last year. In 2009, De père en flic (Fathers and Guns) earned $10 million at the box office; as indicated earlier in this column, the biggest hit of 2010 was Piché entre ciel et terre, which barely made it to $3.5 million.
Genre pictures designed for commercial success failed to bring in big bucks. On the other hand, James Cameron’s Avatar, the year’s biggest success, drew $15 million, or 7.4% of all Quebec returns. The success of Avatar and other American movies gives the local industry the heebie-jeebies. Nobody can be sure that Quebecers will continue to support local product on the big screen the way they did until recently.
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