Inside Québec - September 2008
by Maurie Alioff



Je Ne Me Souviens Pas

At a time when Quebec films are digging into private matters and private parts, Sébastien Rose's Le Banquet goes for a large-scale reflection of Quebec society, both public and intimate, in the 21st century. The symbolic setting is a Montreal university, which is being rocked by emotional and political turbulence.

Bertrand (Alexis Martin), a professor trying to hold onto his idealism, offers loosely structured, rule-breaking courses while doubting that rebellion ever changes anything. One of Bertrand's students, Gilbert (Benoit McGinnis), harasses him in corridors, claiming he expects structure, and telling the childless Bertrand he has no right to pontificate about human relationships.

Meanwhile Jean-Marc, the university rector (Raymond Bouchard), is a crafty operator who ignores his daughter Natacha (Catherine De Léari), funnelling his energy into promoting the university while trying to quash a student strike. Granger (Pierre-Antoine Lasnier), the agitator rallying students, is less liberating hero than a demagogic Fidel wannabe who puffs on cigars as he enflames the crowds far below him. And when strikers ride motorcycles through the university, they seem more like Jackass pranksters than the rebels who shook up Quebec almost half a century ago.

In private moments, Bertrand huddles in the dark watching old movies like Gilles Groulx's Le chat dans le sac and Claude Jutra's Mon oncle Antoine flickering on his home screen. The spontaneity of Groulx's 1964 New Wave film has receded into the distance. As for Jutra's hallowed classic, it was yearning for a vanished era of simple rural life back in 1971. Today, even the yearning is alien to the MP3 generation. Le Banquet's climax, set at a university dinner, centres on a confrontation between Bertrand and his nemesis, Gilbert, while a student riot rages all around them. The elaborately staged sequence triggers memories of the most traumatic event in the history of Quebec academia, not to mention the entire society.

Sébastien Rose's debut feature, 2003's Comment ma mère accoucha de moi durant sa ménopause (How My Mother Gave Birth to Me during Her Menopause) was a far lighter social critique. Le Banquet, which Rose co-wrote with his father Hubert-Yves, debuted in late August at the Montreal World Film Festival and got released a few days later. As I write, reaction to the picture is mixed. While early audiences admire Rose's thematic ambitions, his attempt to work big, and his obvious directorial gifts, some feel that he diffuses the impact of the movie by trying to cover too many issues with an excess of plot threads.


Culture Wars

At the Montreal World Film Festival's gala premiere of Le Banquet, Patrick Roy, head of Alliance-Vivafilm, the picture's distributor, and Pierre Even, its producer, called for action against the Harper government's mid-summer assault on key backers of Canadian culture. By axing the Canadian Independent Film and Video Fund, The National Training Schools Program, The A-V Preservation Trust, Trade Routes, and PromArt, the Harperites eliminated $44.8 million in federal arts funding.

Pointing out that Le Banquet is a movie that deals with knowledge and culture, Roy and Even deplored the Tories' apparent indifference to either. They lamented the 25% budget shrinkage of Quebec's respected film, TV, and new media school, the Institut national de l'image et du son (INIS), and urged industry types and civilians in the audience "to put culture at the centre of the next election campaign."

During the fest's opening ceremony, vice-president Danièle Cauchard made a point of reading a litany of statements about the primal importance of creative endeavour. She quoted Milan Kundera, John F. Kennedy, and Albert Camus, who wrote, "Without culture and the relative freedom it implies, society, even when perfect, is but a jungle." A-list guests, including Governor-General Michaëlle Jean and her filmmaking husband, Jean-Daniel Lafond (his new doc played the fest), applauded loudly.

For months the Conservatives have angered many Canadians with Bill C-10, a clear shot at controlling this country's audio-visual content. Are Harper's funding cuts, announced at the worst possible moment, a kick in the shins to his opponents in the Culture War he has declared? Is he merely floating a perverse trial balloon? Or does he harbour, as many in Quebec's cultural milieu believe, a fantasy that he can replace cultural diversity, experimentation, and even eccentricity with a reflection of Bible Belt – oops, Conservative – values.

You can't play around with culture in Quebec; it's what politics here are often about.  Sure, not every Québécoise and Québécois runs to the Théâtre du Rideau Vert, or snaps up tickets for Philippe Falardeau films. I once saw a guy doze off at an avant-garde spectacle, and complain he was missing the hockey game. Despite Mr. Sleepyhead, a cut to Quebec culture funding is being seen as a cut to Quebec, and its urgent need to protect cultural identity. Moreover, artists have strong links to politicians, and even the tabloid media are on their side. As veteran producer Roger Frappier told the trade paper, Playback, Harper will likely alienate the voters he has picked up in Quebec. Within the culture milieu, supporters of the Bloc Québécois are declaring publicly that they will hold their noses and vote Liberal to keep the Harperites out of power.

In late August, 3000 protestors, including moviemakers like Oscar-winning producer Denise Robert (pictured), politicians, and even the President of Montreal's Chamber of Commerce, Isabelle Hudon, demonstrated against the cuts. As in the rest of Canada, culture pumps a lot of money into the economy, even if not all cultural enterprises strike gold. In fact, according to a veteran researcher, less than 10% of newly launched small enterprises survive two years. He wonders why they are not held to the same standard as arts groups?

The Tories defend their cuts as part of a program to modernize arts funding, and get up to speed with 21st technology. And yet, a few days after the Montreal demo, they cut the $14.5 million Canada New Media fund. A writer-director friend of mine cracked, "It's as if antediluvians in the 19th century decided that the future lay in steam, rather than electricity."

I'm sure that Steven Harper doesn't reach for a gun when he hears the word culture, but he and his colleagues seem to be expressing deep contempt for Canadian art. Yes, it sometimes displays insularity, preciousness and pretension, but a society's gotta try doesn't it? For many years, federal funding of art and culture has promoted both great and promising talent who enhance the country's profile on the international stage.


The Cat Meows

The near death experience of Montreal's World Film Festival gave it a kind of mythic status in Canada's movie event culture. Back in the dark days of 2005, powerful figures attempted to decapitate President Serge Losique's MWFF and replace it with a massively financed alternative. The upstart festival turned out to be a hilarious debacle. When Atom Egoyan walked the red carpet, throngs of movie fans were noticeable by their absence.

The poster for the 32nd MWFF, depicting a cat wearing a bowler hat, sunglasses, and a bowtie, references movie history (Chaplin, Tom and Jerry, Czech jury member Vojtech Jasny's 1963 fantasy classic, The Cassandra Cat, and so on). But more pointedly, it was meant to define the festival. As VP Danièle Cauchard put it, the MWFF "has many lives and always lands on its feet."

This year's fest screened 234 features, 20 of them in its "World Competition." Two Quebec pictures vied for prizes: Stéphane Géhami's debut, En plein coeur, and Benoit Pilon's Ce qu'il faut pour vivre. The former, set on tough working class streets, revolves around the unusual and complicated relationship between two jeep thieves: 32-year-old Benoît (Pierre Rivard) and 14-year-old Jimi (Keven Noel).

Ce qu'il faut pour vivre, is the first fiction feature directed by Benoit Pilon, whose meditative 2003 documentary Roger Toupin, épicier variété revealed a gift for subtle moviemaking. Set in the 1950's, the picture features Inuit actor Natar Ungalaaq, the charismatic lead in Zacharias Kunuk's 2001 Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, once again playing a hunter. But this time he's no fast runner. A diagnosis of tuberculosis uproots Tivi from his environment, isolating him in a sanatorium that saps his will to live. A contemplative movie that paces itself against the grain of frenetic 21st century editing, Ce qu'il faut pour vivre moved audiences at the festival and is destined to be one of the year's most highly regarded films. By festival's end, Pilon's movie picked up the Special Grand Prix of the jury and two audience awards: most popular film and most popular Canadian Feature Film.

The 2008 MWFF offered tributes to studio chief–producer-agent Alan Ladd Jr. and two legendary performers: brilliant French actress Isabelle Huppert and Tony Curtis. Brian De Palma, a regular at the fest for years, was scheduled to give a master class in directing, but he cancelled at the last minute because of serious dental surgery.

The 83-year-old Curtis, who once defined movie star beauty, has been in and out of a wheelchair since a 2006 attack of pneumonia. While in Montreal, he screened a documentary about his and fifth wife Jill Vandenberg's commitment to rescuing doomed horses and met the press wearing a big white cowboy hat, shorts and sneakers.

With his warmth, natural humour, and the Bronx accent he never dropped, Curtis is simultaneously a regular guy and a Hollywood myth. He's also the actor who displayed dramatic and comic genius in Alexander Mackendrick's Sweet Smell of Success (1957), Billy Wilder's Some Like it Hot (1959), and Richard Fleischer's The Boston Strangler (1968).

After telling me about the challenges of filming Sweet Smell on Manhattan streets and recalling his youthful passion for Marilyn Monroe, Curtis revealed that Billy Wilder toyed with the idea of asking Frank Sinatra to play one of the cross-dressers in Some Like It Hot. Of course, Wilder changed his mind, and paired Jack Lemmon with Curtis as a duo of jazz musicians forced to disguise themselves as women. "When we made the movie," Curtis laughs, "I thought Jesus, would Billy be in trouble. Frank wouldn't have taken any of that. He would have hated the idea of dressing up like a girl."

Curtis gets emotional about the loss of Sinatra and other close buddies like Burt Lancaster, who was "a big brute of a man who could scare the shit out of you, but had the soul of an angel."


Maurie Alioff is a film journalist, critic, screenwriter and media columnist. He has written for radio and television and teaches screenwriting at Montreal's Vanier College. A former editor for Cinema Canada and Take One, as well as other magazines, his articles have appeared in various publications including The Montreal Mirror and The New York Times.



Inside Québec - Archive:

November 2007
December 2007

January 2008
February 2008
March 2008
April 2008
May 2008
June 2008
July 2008
August 2008


 
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