Québec Plays TIFF
At this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, Quebec movies ranging from Xavier Dolan’s latest over-the-top romance, Laurence Anyways, to Rafaël Ouellet’s defiantly unglamorous, deeply heartfelt, back-to-the-roots drama, Camion (Truck) reveal the scope of the province’s filmmaking. TIFF 2012’s slate includes two world premieres, Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette Inch’Allah and Bernard Émond’s Tout ce que tu possèdes (All That You Possess), along with pictures that have already been released locally.
The most anticipated of the titles at TIFF, Barbeau-Lavalette Inch’Allah marks the production company, micro_scope’s continuing fascination with the Middle East. The company made Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, highly regarded, multiple award-winning films that were nominated for Best Foreign Film Oscars. Barbeau-Lavalette’s Inch’Allah, about a young Canadian obstetrician trying to deal with the moral complexities of a West Bank Palestinian refugee camp, launches at the festival in the aftermath of two hard–to-follow acts.
Tout ce que tu possèdes (All That You Possess), thoughtful veteran writer-director Bernard Émond’s latest, world premieres in the festival’s Masters section. In Emond’s new sortie into moral complexity, Pierre Leduc (Patrick Drolet) is a melancholic, middle-aged intellectual who refuses his dying father’s offer of a massive inheritance because the old man built his fortune playing funny games in the real estate business. For the moviemaker, “The protagonist does something nearly incomprehensible in the 21st century: he refuses a large sum of money for moral reasons.” Émond’s La Neuvaine, the first film in his trilogy about human virtue in the face of daunting circumstances, was named the best picture of the 2000’s by the Quebec Film Critics’ Association.
Another special presentation, Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (War Witch), has been racking up prizes since the winter. Debuting at the Berlin Film Festival where it won the Silver Bear for best female performance and a Special Mention from the Ecumenical Jury, Rebelle went on take the
best narrative feature award (and $25000) at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. In NYC, young Congolese actress Rachel Mwanza, who Nguyen first saw in a documentary about street children, won her second best actress award.
Mwanza plays Komona, a sweetly innocent girl in her early teens who gets forced into a blood-soaked life as a child soldier. While not exactly a commercial blockbuster in Quebec, Rebelle is one of the year’s strongest releases, a riveting, brutally realistic movie from a director prone to poetic fantasy. Building to an unlikely and touching romance between Komona and an albino child soldier called Magician (Serge Kanyinda), the movie never gets either sentimental, or unbearably horrific, in its depiction of love and cruelty.
Screening in TIFF’s Contemporary World Cinema section, Writer-director Rafaël Ouellet’s Camion will like Rebelle be high on the year’s award nomination lists. Ouellet, whose previous efforts are not exactly crowd-pleasers, goes for more human warmth in this movie about an aging truck driver who slides into bottomless despair after being involved in a head-on collision that kills a woman.
The truck driver is played by Julien Poulin, who once again pulls off a surprise performance. In Camion, Poulin offers a seemingly effortless interpretation of a shattered, deeply suffering character. But you can’t forget he’s the guy also played one of the most hilariously over-the—top characters in the history of Quebec comedy, the incapable-of-suffering buffoon, Elvis Gratton. Critics are already predicting that Poulin’s performance will be deemed the year’s best at the Prix-Jutra for displaying an emotional conviction equal to last spring’s winner Gilbert Sicotte, who played an aging car dealer in Le Vendeur.
Patrice Dubois and Stéphane Breton complement Poulin as Germain’s sons, the introverted Samuel and the barhopping Alain, who travel to his rural house where they try to unlock him from his paralyzing depression. The brothers’ 21st century, urban lifestyles contrast with their father’s in a film that pays homage to Québécois roots values, which turn out to be Germain’s salvation. Interestingly, Pauline Marois, leader of the Parti-Québécois, still determined to separate Quebec from English Canada, showed up for the movie’s red-carpet launch.
On the festival circuit since its screening at Sundance 2012, Denis Côté’s Bestiaire plays TIFF’s Wavelengths section. A documentary only in the loosest sense of the word, the film confronts viewers with excruciating long takes of animals in a Quebec zoo. The experience functions as a Rorschach test. You see what you want to in these images of wild creatures staring back at you. There are almost no words, no music, and certainly no storyline in Côté’s movie, but it haunts you.
The lightest of the Quebec pictures at TIFF, Manon Briand’s Liverpool, attempts to fuse thriller and romantic comedy while making a statement about industrial immorality. Émilie (Stéphanie Lapointe), a coat check girl in a dance club called Liverpool, watches other people having a good time and then goes home to the empty apartment recently vacated by her boyfriend.
One night, a client doesn’t pick up her coat because she has overdosed on some party drug. Émilie finds a hotel key in the coat pocket and in a striking opening sequence that echoes the identity confusions of Hitchcock’s North By Northwest, everyone’s favourite synthesis of thriller, comedy, and romance, she is drawn into a mysterious conspiracy. Amelie Poulain morphs into a quasi action heroine.
As the story pushes forward, Émilie investigates the convoluted machinations with her quirky love interest Thomas, a nerdy, social network advertizing specialist. (Charles-Alexandre Dubé). In Liverpool, everybody is constantly checking an electronic device, and although conceived years ago, it zeroes in on the organizational power of social networks, not to mention the kind of youthful protests that shook Quebec throughout the year. Manon Briand wrote and directed the kinetic bicycle chick movie, 2 secondes (her best film), and hasn’t released a feature since 2002’s La turbulence des fluides, which highlights a beautiful underwater celebration of actress Pascale Bussières’ naked body.
Last but not least, Xavier Dolan’s Laurence Anyways launched at Cannes 2012 in the Un Certain Regard sidebar, much to the vexation of the youthful director of Les Amours imaginaires and J'ai tué ma mère, who thought that his new movie should have been selected for the Official Competition.
A special presentation at TIFF, Laurence Anyways aims at blowing you away with its onslaught of stunning images. Dolan, writer-director-editor-costume designer-etc. is a 21st century dandy, heir to J.K. Huysmans, Oscar Wilde, and the entire crew of 19th century celebrators of life’s surfaces. Like them, Dolan continually refines his own personal surfaces from clothing fashion to ever-evolving arrangements of his luxuriant hair. As the Hollywood Reporter put it in a review that praises the picture but also zeroes in on its limitations, “For Xavier Dolan, the ambitious boy wonder of operatically overblown Quebecois cinema, life is a series of great hair days.”
Set mainly in 1990s Montreal, the film’s eponymous Laurence (Melvil Poupaud) plays a thirtysomething man engaged in a hectic, hyper-romantic relationship with tempestuous Frederique (Suzanne Clément). Fred’s tight connection to Laurence is strained when she discovers his need to get dolled up as a woman. How does a libidinous woman sustain a relationship with a transsexual who wants to continue his relationship with her?
Dolan invests almost three hours of screen time to answer this question, luxuriating in a Fellini-esque parade of costumes and hairdos. While Poupaud gives an intelligently thought-out performance in this film that spans 10 years in the lives of its characters, he is somewhat distant. Clément, who shared the best actress award in the Certain Regard section, grounds the picture and heats up its stream of meticulously composed and lit visuals.
A high-profile Quebec release not on TIFF’s schedule, Omertà will probably be the year’s big hit, earning over $2 million by mid-August. Produced by Denise Robert, directed by Luc Dionne, the picture spins off from a hardboiled1990’s TV series about cops and Mafioso. While local critics admire the series, most ofthem have passed on the movie.
In Omertà, Michel Côté re-creates the character he played in the TV show, a Sûreté du Québec cop now running a high-tech security company. As the film’s storyline advances, Côté’s PierreGauthier jumps back into his former profession to investigate a mafiaconspiracy involving money laundering and the production of fake gold bars.
Boasting a stellar cast, Omertà features vedettes Stephane Rousseau (Les Invasions barbares), Patrick Huard (Starbuck) and Rachelle Lefevre (the Twilight films). As an added bonus you get to see Rene Angelil (pictured in front on the right), Céline Dion’s manager and husband, as a mob chieftain called Dominic Fagazi.
Like Angélil, who speaks in a soft rasp even though you know he carries a big stick, everything in the picture is upscale, including the cops’ restaurant choices. In an obvious bid to wow moviegoers, the mise en scène fetishizes designer suits, expensive condos, shiny black luxury cars, and smart phones. So do movies directed by Hong Kong’s Johnny To, but his gangster pictures emanate heat and cinematic wit. Omertà spoons out the crime movie tropes without much sense of urgency, or an engaging plot. We get a lot of tough guy gazes and longshots of elderly heavies shaking hands under trees, or standing beside their sleek black vehicles in their sleek black Armanis.
The 36th edition of the Montreal World Film Festival opened with a Chinese monster picture called Million Dollar Crocodile, which fest president Serge Losique described to one journalist as “Jaws meets E.T.” Displaying cheesy effects that might have delighted the legendary schlock artiste Ed Wood (Plan 9 from Outer Space), MDC amused some first-nighters in Place des Arts and annoyed others. Some wondered why the MWFF seemed to be attempting an emulation of the popular FanTasia genre film festival (See below.) Most praised the animated short that accompanied the monster croc flick. Martine Chartrand’s National Film Board of Canada-produced MacPherson recounts the friendship between a Quebec legend, chansonnier Félix Leclerc, and Frank MacPherson, a Jamaican chemical engineer and impassioned jazz fan.
As the fest launched, The Montreal Gazette’s Brendan Kelly pointed out that not only does the festival get bypassed by cream-of-the-crop movies that go to the Toronto International Film Festival, even new Quebec pictures like Bernard Émond’s Tout ce que tu possèdes and Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s Inch’Allah play TIFF, not the MWFF. Even worse, writer-director Podz’s hotly anticipated L’Affaire Dumont, (not on the TIFF slate), did not play the festival and press-screened during the event in anticipation of its mid-September release. Two new local productions were selected: Claude Gagnon’s Canadian-Japanese co-production Karakara, world premiering in competition, and Babek Aliassa’s Halal Butcher Shop, competing in the First Films slot.
Losique says that the fest’s programmers checked out 3000 movies to find the lineup that included 212 features. For sure, the MWFF selection invariably attracts enthusiastic spectators who ignore media put-downs and industry grumbling. A longtime MWFF fan, social worker Mary Krohn makes sure that she’s in Montreal during the festival, which offers so many titles, “I find it very hard to choose films. It’s all luck.” Krohn has been “lucky every festival and found films that were entirely different from anything I’ve seen during the year. Usually, the ones I like are from small countries like Iceland and Kazakhstan. These films are not heavily plot-driven and focus on relationships around a situation.”
Krohn’s friend, documentary filmmaker and artist Steve Kellar, says, “I love the festival. Losique puts on films that we’d never see otherwise. The best are finely made and conceived from countries that have a completely different viewpoint on life and the world. Watching the films is almost like travelling.” This year’s program represented 80 countries, giving ample opportunity for mental voyaging, not to mention a rare chance for people from various cultures to see films in their own languages.
For Kellar, comparisons with Toronto are irrelevant. “I live here,” he says, “and the film festival is available to me. Even if the festival is not showing the cream of the crop, there are a lot of gems in the selection.” This year, both Krohn and Kellar enjoyed Icelandic filmmaker Hafsteinn Gunnar’s debut feature, Either Way, which tracks the tense, and then awkwardly developing friendship between two men working on a highway in the middle of nowhere. “The portrayal of the characters was vivid and very true-to-life,” says Krohn. Kellar adds, “It’s got a wonderful, satirical irony that many Icelandic films have.”
Justin Trudeau showed up at the 16th edition of FanTasia, Montreal’s annual immersion into international genre filmmaking, as did Yann Van Houtte, the cheesemonger in the deluxe food store, Le Maitre Boucher. Van Houtte, whose great grandfather is the guy brandishing the coffee cup in the family business’s logo (“I missed being rich by one generation,” he laughs), gives fantasy movies and comic books the same studious attention he lavishes on imported cheeses.
For Van Houtte, FanTasia allows him to “get past the limits, to see new things. It’s exploration. You depart from the predictable movie path.” Naturally, he compares the experience to dining out: “You always have strange foods on your plate. Your meal is really going to be interesting.”
Robert Bilinski, a mathematician who sees links between his discipline and haiku poetry, has been a regular at the festival since its launch in 1996. So has his girlfriend, Nadia Morin, who works for the city of Montreal and whose taste has evolved from an affection for heavy gore to subtle films like The Taste of Tea. “FanTasia,” Bilinski told me during the event’s opening party “has the guts to show unconventional material from around the world.”
FanTasia 2012 was attended by 109,000 moviegoers, moviemakers and industry types. The audience increased by 7,000 from 2011; 200 journalists and critics covered the event; 250 industry people participated in the fest’s Rendez-Vous, a major genre film powwow.
FanTasia opened with yet another delirious, yet coolly ironic offering from Takashi Miike, Japan’s one-of-a-kind purveyor of crazed moviemaking. In Miike’s For Love's Sake, his bizarre take on West Side Story, a young woman from a rich family uses her influence to get the boy she loves, a hardcore street thug with an Elvis sneer, into the private school she attends. The picture is an amalgam of ridiculously over-the-top violence and equally ridiculous musical numbers, not to mention avant-garde production and art design that merges theatrical artificiality with garbage can-strewn realism. Unfortunately, the leads, Satoshi Tsumabuki (the thug) and Emi Takei (the winsome girl) don’t really get under your skin and pull you into their romance. Moreover, the constant explosions of mean’t-to-be-parodic violence become tedious.
One of the festival’s high profile titles was 77-year-old William Friedkin’s adaptation of Tracy Letts’s play, Killer Joe. In the picture, made on a far lower budget than Friedkin productions like The Exorcist, Matthew McConaughey plays a soft-spoken cop and freelance murderer commissioned by a trailer trash family to kill its malicious mom for her life insurance money. Like a snake in an infected garden, McConaughey’s Joe zeroes in on teenage daughter Dottie (Juno Temple). His burning lust hidden behind his politeness and implacable, black-clad cool, Joe couldn’t care less about dad’s slut girlfriend (Gina Gershon) who parades around the trailer with her pubis exposed.
Dottie, a mix of intellectual handicap, weirdly angelic glow, and a precocious, baby doll sexuality (she’s more naked than Gershom in the film) is also hypersensitive. “Your eyes hurt,” she tells Joe, who as the film develops, becomes more menacing until he finally erupts into violence that is frightening and grotesquely funny.
Award winners at FanTasia 2012 included Alberto Marini’s screenplay for Jaume Balaguero’s beautifully orchestrated Sleep Tight. In the Barcelona-set film, Cesar (Luis Tosar) is one of several dysfunctional, violence-prone males who rampaged across the screen at FanTasia.
A concierge in a well-appointed, old school apartment building, Cesar suffers from a pathological inability to be happy about anything other than wiping the smile off joyful people like tenant Clara (Marta Etura). While pretending to be at the humble and friendly service of the building’s residents, he writes menacing, anonymous letters to the young woman and hides under her bed at night, waiting for the right moment to drug and ravish her. Like his movie [Rec], Balaguero’s new release plays out within the confines of an apartment building, but it foregoes the handheld look of his moc-doc zombie film for classically controlled cinema recalling Roman Polanski films like The Tennant.
FanTasia’s Best Actress prize was shared by Marijana Jankovic and AnnaLynn McCord. Jankovic appears in Danish moviemaker Christoffer Boe’s film Beast as a woman who gets fed up with her husband’s perversely obsessive love for her. Maxine has given into, and even enjoyed, kinky activities favoured by Bruno (Nicolas Bro), so when she cuts him off and puts him down, the affluent intellectual gets even more bestial. “I’m so hot for you, I’m so hot for you, I’m so hot for you and you’re so cold,” laments Mick Jagger in one of The Stones’ best songs. It sums up Bruno’s problem in Boe’s wired, intensely intimate chamber film.
In Richard Bates Jr.’s Excision, AnnaLynne McCord bravely takes on the role of Pauline, an outsider teenager the filmmakers clearly, and ostentatiously, wanted to push to the limit and beyond. Pale with bad skin and herpes sores on her lips, she drills into people with total contempt, telling the girlfriend of her first lover: “He licks pussy like a slurping dog.”
Excision (left) is a Carrie update complete with a hardcore Christian mother (played by former hardcore porn star, Tracy Lord), who has zero empathy for humanity. At the picture’s start, Pauline is out to lose her virginity (we keep seeing her eroticized mutilation fantasies) and learn surgical techniques that will allow her to save her sister from the Cystic Fibrosis that will eventually destroy her. Looking sleek despite its tiny budget, Excision boasts appearances by cult figures Malcolm McDowell, Ray Wise and John Waters.
Finally, Best First Feature went to Charles de Lauzirika’s Crave, about a lonely, socially inept crime-scene photographer (Josh Lawson), whose violent fantasies torment him. When he becomes involved with his neighbour Virginia (Emma Lung), and his world brightens, de Lauzirika’s storyline begins to parallel Travis Bickle’s descent into hell in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Ron Perlman, who often plays tortured characters, appears as Aiden, the photographer’s father confessor, a hard-bitten cop who gives him access to the horrors he takes pictures of.
Incidentally, Charles de Lauzirika is an American documentarian who has produced DVD/Blu-Ray material for directors like Ridley Scott and his late brother Tony.
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.
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