Two new Quebec movies that relay messages of faith, hope, and charity work opposite ends of the film spectrum. Onetime anthropologist and doc-maker Bernard Émond’s La Donation (The Legacy) is a sober, resolutely unsentimental picture about a Montreal emergency-room doctor confronting misery and despair when she temporarily replaces an elderly small-town GP. Totally different in style and approach, Sylvain Archambault’s Pour toujours les Canadiens drips with sentimentality, particularly when immersed in a plotline involving a young boy who will die without a kidney transplant. While Pour toujours, a heavily promoted tribute to the Montreal Canadiens in the legendary hockey team’s 100th year, was engineered to score big at the box-office, Émond’s morality tale hearkens back to a time when Québécois filmmakers aspired to the gravity of auteurists like Bergman and Antonioni.
In La Donation, shot with meditative restraint by Sara Mishara, the sun rarely shines on the Abitibi region of Quebec. Overcast skies are correlatives for the melancholy lives of the people ministered to by Dr. Yves Rainville (Jacques Godin), whose sense of duty has given his life purpose. Rainville hopes that Dr. Jeanne Dion (Élise Guilbault, pictured at right), who assumes that after a month she’ll be back in the big city, will make a permanent commitment to his patients, offering them his kind of focused, humane service.
Rainville, the last doctor in North America who wears cardigan vests and does house calls, tells Jeanne that he was once an unfulfilled urbanite. He probably senses that Jeanne herself has been desperately trying to solve existential riddles for years. In fact, she once fell into a suicidal depression, an ordeal dramatized in La Neuvaine (The Novena), the 2005 movie that launched Émond’s trilogy on the value of Christian virtues in a secular world. La Neuvaine was followed by Contre toute espérance (Summit Circle, 2007), about a woman (Guylaine Tremblay) struggling to survive the destruction of her livelihood by a multinational corporation and the loss of her husband (Guy Jodoin) to a crippling stroke.
Throughout La Donation, the trilogy’s finale, Dr. Jeanne Dion faces so much pain and death, she doubts she can accept what is for Rainville the most valuable gift he has to offer, his practice. She is especially distressed by the fate of a pregnant, drug-addicted teenage girl. But in the end, as in the first two films, Émond offers tentative glimpses of meaning in a world of apparently random suffering. The movie’s foremost visual motif, nature panoramas from character povs, simultaneously imply the world’s beauty and its enigmatic silence. Devoid of humour and even one moment of uninhibited pleasure for its rural characters (don’t they ever throw a party in Normétal?), the film’s slow rhythm and measured tone, not to mention Élise Guilbault’s Mona Lisa smile, feed into La Donation's metaphysical mood, and Émond’s nostalgia for more spiritual times.
When I interviewed Jean-Claude Labrecque, DP on La Neuvaine and Contre toute espérance, for Canadian Cinematographer Magazine, the venerable moviemaker said that Émond is an original who enriches a film scene tilted toward audience friendly projects. Many in Quebec’s industry agree, which explains why - apart from the awards he picks up at international festivals – Émond’s deliberately austere pictures keep getting funded.
Amidst all the anguish in the world according to Émond, the writer-director finds his greatest pleasure in working closely with actors he admires. The week La Donation debuted in Quebec he talked to journalist Patricia Tadros about Élise Guilbault, whose subtle performances have graced two of his films. “I never get tired of filming her face. I find that she has an extraordinary beauty, a great expressiveness. I’m not interested in working with false and glossy beauty.”
Incidentally, La Donation opened in the Quebec box office’s Top Ten and by mid-November, it was Canada’s highest grossing film although the take was modest compared to the numbers this year’s blockbuster, De père en flic, racked up week after week.
According to the people who made Pour toujours le Canadiens, and its distributors, the ultimate hockey picture broke a Guinness World Record weeks before it launched in 100 theatres across Quebec and took a shot at the box-office. The movie’s mid-November world premiere at the Bell Centre, home of the Montreal Canadiens, attracted 14,000 spectators, including show business personalities, politicians, and onetime Canadiens superstar Jean Beliveau, who cameos in the film. Forget about Gone with the Wind and Lord of the Rings, the first public screening of Sylvain Archambault’s debut feature may have been the best attended premiere in movie history.
The hockey arena’s projection of Pour toujours was not 100%, but it was acceptable, and after months of anticipation, viewers were far more focused on how Archambault and screenwriter Jacques Savoie would tell the story of their beloved Glorieux. To attract a youthful demographic while underlining the value of cultural heritage, the movie quickly zeroes in on teenage William (Danhaé Audet-Beaulieu). As the movie opens, William is in a chaotic state, pissed off at both the junior hockey team he is devoted to and his dad Benoît (Christian Bégin), a documentary director who happens to be working on a film about the Habs, and has been ignoring his son.
William’s obligatory coming-of-age is triggered by privileged viewings of sacred Canadiens’ icons like sweaters worn by the greats, and his encounter with Daniel (Antoine L'Écuyer from C'est pas moi, je le jure!), a sick little boy in Montreal’s Sainte-Justine Children’s Hospital. Coincidentally, William’s Mother Michelle (Céline Bonnier) is Daniel’s nurse, the only character sure that the right kidney donor will be found, and a transplant will save the child.
Like almost everyone else in the movie, Daniel is obsessed with the Canadiens, and in one wannabe Spielbergian blowout scene, the hockey cards he’s playing with drift into the air and magnify like software icons on a Mac desktop. As for William, his narrative arc takes him from non-stop scowling to non-stop grinning. A TV series, commercials, and music clip director, Archambault’s skill-set doesn’t include subtlety. He punches up his on-the-nose dramatic highlights as if they were selling points in a 60-second spot.
As Pour toujours les Canadiens progresses, it recites key moments of the Habs story via archival footage, some of it on Benoît’s editing monitors, characters telling stories to other characters, and visits to inner sanctums where the holiest of holies, including the Grail itself - the Stanley cup - are kept. The movie lurches back and forth between the fictional characters and turning points in history: the founding of the Canadiens on December 4, 1909; the premature death of Howie Morenz; Boom Boom Geoffrion’s invention of the slapshot; the ascension of Maurice Rocket Richard, the most idolized of all Canadiens superstars; the street rioters responding to Richard’s 1955 suspension, an event still considered the face-off that triggered Quebec’s Révolution tranquille; and so on. The recitation suggests scripture, or the recitation of the Haggadah at a Passover Seder. In the cup’s heavenly light, the future seems radiant, and as one character puts it, “The greatest are not just the greatest on the ice,” a message exemplified by Gentleman Jean Beliveau.
The Canadiens, with their special relationship to the Sainte-Justine Hospital, follow a tradition of visiting the kids to cheer them up. So near the end of Pour Toujours, the doors to Daniel’s ward swing open, and Habs who played in the 2008-2009 season slo-mo their way in like gods: Chris Higgins, Mike Komisarik, Francis Bouillon, and Saku Koivu, speaking French in public for the first time. Curmudgeonly film critics were untouched by the “Hit one for me Babe” moment between Daniel and Saku, and also annoyed by the distributor’s embargo on reviews until the December 4 release date, exactly 100 years after the club’s founding. They insisted on pointing out that all the Glorieux who appear in Pour toujours le Canadiens, including goalie Guillaume Latendresse, have vanished from the team.
As reported in Northernstars, Émile Gaudreault’s De père en flic (Fathers and Guns) will be re-made for Sony by revered Hollywood producers, and frequent Steven Spielberg collaborators, Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall. According to Le Journal de Montréal, Denise Robert, the comedy’s producer, met Kennedy the year she, her husband Denys Arcand, and her business partner Daniel Louis picked up a Best Foreign Film Oscar for Les Invasions Barbares.
Following the huge box-office of De père en flic in Quebec (it’s the most successful French language picture in Canadian film history), Robert sought Kennedy’s advice about the re-make offers that were pouring in. Kennedy’s advice was to make the U.S. version with her. “I never believed,” said Robert, “that this producer would herself be interested.”
Sweetening the deal is Kennedy’s wish that Robert, recently named Canadian producer of the year by the trade magazine Playback, and Émile Gaudreault work with the Americans to make a movie as “entertaining and successful” as the original. It’s the ultimate, (or ooltimit, as Sarah Palin would say), compliment. One of the most successful production teams in Hollywood history wants creative input from a Montreal producer and writer-director.
Naturally, Telefilm Canada and Heritage Minister James Moore, who twittered excitedly about the film after he hosted a screening of it on Parliament Hill, are ecstatic that Canadians have achieved such big-time success. Kathleen Kennedy says that she can only hope she’ll be able to “re-create a team as strong” as the one that made De père.
So I’m imagining the team at CAA, or some other agency, packaging the project. Who will play the grizzled, embittered cop and his neurotic policeman son, archenemies in a remote father-son therapy camp while undercover on a case. How about De Niro and Adam Sandler? De Niro and Tobey Maguire? De Niro and Jason Schwartzman? Maybe De Niro is too old, but who else could offer his quality of grizzled and embittered?
This year’s Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal (RIDM) played a sweeping variety of films ranging from the opener, first-time director Lixin Fan’s
Last Train Home to Fredrik Gertten’s Bananas!*
The former, an epic and yet intimate doc about an annual mass migration of 130 million Chinese workers produced by Montreal’s EyeSteelFilm (Up the Yangtze) was named best Canadian/Quebec film at RIDM, and went on to take the VPRO IDFA Award for Best Feature-Length Documentary at the Amsterdam International Documentary Festival. Bananas!*, one of the highest profile docs of the year, was legally threatened by the Dole Fruit Company, which alleged that a crusading lawyer in the film was scamming the courts with claims that Dole endangered Nicaraguan plantation workers.
More than 28,000 festivaliers attended this year’s edition of the Rencontres, up 20% from last year. Apart from the movies in view, the fest ran meetings, debates, master classes, and think sessions on major issues. 250 professionals attended RIDM’s market, Doc Circuit Montréal.
An unapologetically flamboyant and hedonistic friend of mine once said, “Death is more universal than life; everyone dies, but not everyone lives.”
For even the most zen among us, death is sad, but it’s even more heart breaking when the departed was blessed with an energy that spilled over into everything he did, and made life a thrill for people around him.
Gilles Carle, who died on November 28 after struggling with Parkinson’s Disease for many years, a disease he called “demonic,” was an intensely serious artist who was also as show biz as you can get. Carle’s many pictures broke rules and pioneered new directions for the Canadian and Quebec film industries. Unlike many Canadian moviemakers he was willing to try anything, swinging from mainstream projects to berserk Québécois westerns to surreal fables to a documentary about chess.
Like many of his films, Carle’s paintings and drawings displayed a perceptive satirical wit and a passion for female beauty at its most sensual and wildly erotic. His two great loves, actress-director Carole Laure and singer Chloé Sainte-Marie, who was with him until the end, both say he taught them as much about love as he did about cinema.
Once, I watched Gilles Carle direct with his boundless enthusiasm and quicksilver improvisations. Over the years, I interviewed him more than once in his airy Carré St. Louis flat, where I saw his fast-talking bravado tailspin into foggy attempts to explain Mona McGill et son vieux père malade, (Mona McGill and Her Ailing Father), the unfilmed screenplay he bravely worked on with an assistant and hoped would be his next production.