Although it didn’t exactly catch fire at the Quebec box office, Anne Émond’s Nuit # 1 has shaped up as one of the most attention-grabbing films of the year. The low budget indie played numerous festivals from Pusan to Palm Springs, collecting accolades like lead Catherine De Léan’s best actress trophy at France’s Pau Film Festival and a special mention from TIFF in the competition for best Canadian first feature. Named Best Canadian movie at the Vancouver International Film Festival, Nuit # 1 quickly landed sales in the U.S., Japan, Spain, Korea, and Russia. By mid-January, the debut feature scored two Genie nominations: for De Léan’s performance and Émond’s script.
For the TIFF jury, Nuit #1 is “simple and raw. It reminded us of the power of two actors with incredible chemistry, a courageous filmmaker, and a dingy apartment. We can’t wait for Nuit #2.”
The two actors are Catherine de Léan and Dimitri Stroroge, who play Clara and Nikolai, late twentysomethings who meet in the opening scene’s dreamy depiction of a rave. Probably fuelled by hefty doses of XTC, Clara and Nikolai segué to Dimitri’s apartment where they engage in the film’s much talked-about, 12 minute sex sequence. They fuck in the hallway. They writhe, and suck, and lick on an ugly couch and doubtlessly filthy mattress. Romance is not in the air. Biological imperatives and raw hunger are.
“Sadly, this is the only kind of sex that they know, and what I really think is that it’s not natural for two people to be doing this. They don’t even know each other’s names,” Anne Émond said when I met her and De Léan during TIFF. The week of the movie’s Quebec release, de Léan told Brendan Kelly of The Gazette, “It’s failed sex. It’s not like in movies.”
So what are Clara and Nikolai up to after their robotic coupling? They talk, and then they talk more, and then they get pissed off, and then they talk. Nuit # 1 has a rep for being cerebral, and it is. There’s a whole lot of analyzing going on as the ravers dissect each other and themselves until confessions reveal the dark nights of their souls, and redemption glimmers on the horizon.
If this sounds like Nuit # 1 is an extended duet, it isn’t. Much of the movie’s talk is in lengthy monologues during which either Clara or Nikolai is one-on-one with the camera. Émond, who worked her screenplay carefully, and as if she was writing for the staqe, champions talk-driven films in an era when moviemakers play to audiences with the attention spans of restless badgers. “People don’t talk anymore in the movies, and critics say, the images are everything, but I love talking movies,” says Émond, whose taste favours dialogue-driven work by European directors like Eric Rohmer, Jean Eustace, and Ingmar Bergman.
When De Léan read the script for Nuit # 1, she thought about the raw sex of the opening, and asked herself, “Oh my God, if I get this part, do I really have to do that?” Then after thinking more about the project, she concluded, “I have to do this. I want to do this. I wrote a letter saying it is so truthful and accurate.”
Émond says that the truths she’s revealing are all “about me and my friends, different people that I know. I’m 29. When I wrote the script at the age of 17, I combined stories about people on the cusp of turning 30.” She adds that the movie “is representative of one aspect of my generation. Not everybody gets into this kind of free sex and drugs. But it’s typical of our generation in the sense that people are sometimes lost in the kind of world we live in.”
The Top Ten
In 2011, Quebec moviemakers, some of them from the generation Anne Émond is talking about, came up with a strong slate of releases, one of the best in years. Here are the highlights:
1. Picture of the Year
Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar has unstoppable momentum. Nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar (like last year's Incendies), programmed into the 2012 Sundance Film Festival’s Spotlight Section, the movie has taken prizes at the Toronto, Whistler, and Locarno film festivals. Oscar competition includes Iranian Asghar Farhadi’s moving festival standout, A Separation and veteran Polish director's
Agnieszka Holland's holocaust drama, In Darkness.
Recently, the Academy of Canadian Cinema and Television nominated Monsieur Lazhar for Genie Awards in nine categories, including Best Picture, Director, and Actor (Fellag, the performer who plays the title role). Falardeau tells journalists he understands why his movie received fewer nominations than the top two contenders: Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de flore and David Cronenberg’s A Dangerous Method. Modest Monsieur Lazhar is not the kind of film that picks up costume, makeup, and effects nods. By January 12, the movie earned close to $2 million on Quebec screens.
When Monsieur Lazhar was named the year’s best Canadian picture by the Toronto Film Critics Association, TFCA President and Maclean’s magazine critic Brian Johnson said, “There’s a luminous warmth to this film that rings utterly true. Philippe Falardeau explores dire issues with an understated touch and huge heart.”
Warmth and heart. That’s why professionals and civilian audiences like Monsieur Lazhar so much. Moreover, Falardeau’s adaptation of Evelyne de la Chenelière’s play about an immigrant teacher who rescues a class of traumatized elementary students from despair treats the material with taste, finesse, and a fine-tuned balance between comedy and drama. Like last year’s highest profile movie, Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies, Falardeau’s was produced by Luc Déry and Kim McCraw’s company, micro_scope, and like Incendies, it evokes the torments that plague the Middle East via its Algerian protagonist, a man who has suffered blood-curdling losses. Unlike Incendies, the movie sees more light than dark tragedy.
Speaking of Incendies, as I write, the film has been nominated for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts’ (BAFTA’s) award for a “Film not in the English Language.” Like Monsieur Lazhar, it’s up against Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. On top of that, the picture recently won France’s Prix Lumières for the best French-language film outside of France (actually, much of the dialogue is in Arabic). And the Boston Society of Film Critics sees Villeneuve’s movie, a 2011 release in the U.S., as the best foreign-language film of the year.
While Monsieur Lazhar plays as a minimalist and naturalist movie, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Café de Flore spreads its wings in a music-fuelled explosion of emotionally charged images and a dramatic situation that holds out the possibility of reincarnated souls drawn to each other by eternal passion.
Following successful outings at the Venice, Toronto, and Atlantic Film Festivals, picking up a Best Canadian feature award from the latter, the movie earned well over $1.5 million in Quebec and sold widely in foreign territories. More recently, the Academy of Canadian Cinema & Television announced that it had nominated Café de Flore in 13 Genie categories, more than any other 2011 film. Until the Genie Award gala in March, Vallée’s film will up for best picture, director, screenplay, cinematographer, actress, supporting actress and actor Genies, along with several crafts prizes.
Produced by Pierre Even, who was also behind C.R.A.Z.Y., Vallée’s 2005 coming-of-age-to-rock ‘n’ roll story, Café de Flore is an intricately assembled, time-transcending love story that plunges its DJ hero (singer Kevin Parent) into romantic entanglements that somehow include a Parisian woman (Vanessa Paradis) living in the 1960’s with a ruthless devotion to her Down-syndrome son (Martin Gerrier). Summing up his movie at TIFF, Vallée told me, “Life is bigger than any of us, the movie is saying.”
3. Hit of the Year
CINEAC, the company that reports on Quebec box-office, says that Ken Scott’s Starbuck was 2011’s most popular locally produced movie, pulling in $3.4 million since its July release. Starbuck features Patrick Huard as an aging slacker who discovers that his youthful contributions to a sperm bank resulted in 533 children. Other 2011 releases earning over $1 million: Le sens de l’humour, Gerry, Monsieur Lazhar, Café de flore, and Funkytown (see previous Inside Quebec columns.)
On top of its box-office success in Quebec, Starbuck took the audience award for Best Narrative film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, and picked up six Genie nominations, including for Best Picture, Original Screenplay (Scott and Martin Petit), Actor (Huard) and Supporting Actress (Julie Le Breton). Starbuck has also played well in English-speaking Canada, and sold in countries from Spain and Israel to Austria and Hong Kong.
Overall, homegrown movies took 9.9% of market share, slightly higher than last year, but nowhere near the 18.2% miracle grosses of 2005. In other figures relayed by CINEAC, American movies controlled 77.9% of the 2011 box-office, French films 3.4, and all other countries 8.7%. And English Canadian pictures? A breathtaking 0.2%.
4. Performance of the Year
In a year graced by many excellent performances ranging from Patrick Huard’s seriocomic chops in Starbuck to Vanessa Paradis’ incarnation of an obsessed mother in Café de flore, the pièce de résistance was Gilbert Sicotte’s infinitely nuanced depiction of a blessed and damned small town car salesman in writer-director Sébastien Pilote’s first feature, Le Vendeur (The Salesman).
The movie made TIFF’s list of the year’s Top 10 Canadian Features, but received no Genie nominations. Apparently, the production company did not register Le Vendeur for consideration, partly to sidestep the fees. Sicotte is sure to get a Best Actor nod when Quebec’s Prix-Jutra nominations roll around.
5. “Rayon International” of the Year
The film that’s drawn the biggest flurry of attention outside Quebec is Monsieur Lazhar, followed by Café de flore.
6. Trend of the Year
Yet another “New Wave” of films by young directors. Anne Émond’s Nuit # 1, Sébastien Pilote’s Le Vendeur, Guy Édoin’s Marécages, Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie’s Laurentie, and Ivan Grbovic’s Roméo Onze are poetically inclined, low budget features that critics are seeing as the shapes of things to come.
7. Ignored Movie of the Year
Hyper-stylized and moody, loaded with complicated tracking shots, Michel Jetté’s gangstah picture BumRush zeroes in on criminal rivalries in a strip club called The Kingdom. Obsessed with detailed presentations of Italian, Québécois, and Afro-Canadian clothing styles, attitude, and behaviour, overloaded with exposition and convoluted plotting, the film might have been too densely ambitious to click with audiences.
A little late recognition of Jetté’s movie came with two Genie nominations, as well as nominations and prizes from the Maverick Movie Awards and the Los Angeles New Wave International Film Festival.
In the picture, rapper Bad News Brown (aka Paul Frappier) plays Loosecanon, a dangerously volatile member of the I.B. 11 street gang. Sadly, Frappier, who also contributed his harmonica-inflected hip-hop to the movie, was found dead near Montreal’s Lachine Canal before BumRush opened.
8. Festival of the Year
Once again, the FanTasia International Film Festival, the genre pow-wow that continues to grow as an audience and professional event.
The Festival du nouveau cinema also had a good year while the Montreal World Film Festival continues to survive. As for the Montreal International Documentary Festival (RIDM), its 2011 programming was particularly tasty.
9. International Hits of the Year
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows – 2, topped Quebec’s box-office in 2011, taking in $9.2 million. But I like to think that Québécois hearts were with The Adventures of Tintin, which opened big here before it launched anywhere else in North America.
Quebeckers have long been devoted to Tintin and big fans of the Swedish movies made from author Stieg Larsson’s Millenium novels. That’s why so many people, including me, were looking forward to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Pierced, traumatized, and fearless Lisbeth Salander lives on in Fincher’s version of her adventures, which is bigger and sleeker than Niels Arden Oplev’s original version. And in her own way, Rooney Mara’s Lisbeth is as compelling as Noomi Rapace’s. Overall, I agree
with Roger Ebert’s assessment of Fincher’s movie: “I don't know if it's better or worse [than the original]. It has a different air.”
10. Surprise of the Year
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