Inside Québec – May 2009
by Maurie Alioff
She Drives by Night
Micheline Lanctôt, who wrote, directed, and plays the lead in the new film Suzie, has been a presence on the Québec scene since the 1970s. She first aroused interest with her compelling acting in two completely different films: Gilles Carle’s La vraie nature de Bernadette (1972) and Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974). Like many natural talents, Micheline Lanctôt seemed to have always been around.When Carle first met the star of his best film, Lanctôt had never acted. A musician and artist, she worked at the NFB, where she cracked up fellow animators with her horse whinny imitations, and later drew for Montreal’s Potterton Productions. Several years ago, Carle told me that meeting Lanctôt, whose workplace was near his studio, had to be some kind of “miracle.” In a flash, he knew that she would perfectly embody the character he imagined: a mysteriously self-contained woman who decides to live in the country, endures disillusionment, gives an old man a hand job, and turns into a rifle-toting saint. As I write this, it occurs to me that almost no-one on today’s film scene has that kind of imagination, and what production company would buy into such a wacky fable?In The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Lanctôt played opposite Richard Dreyfuss as Duddy’s French-Canadian girlfriend. One of the few indelible characters in Canadian film, Yvette’s sunny and loving disposition gets seriously challenged by Duddy’s manias and double-crosses.During the filming of the Oscar-nominated picture, Lanctôt hooked up with director Ted Kotcheff and eventually lived with him in L.A. Since returning to Montreal in 1980, she has been a prolific actress, playing on TV and in movies that include Denys Arcand’s Les invasions barbares (2003).Following her directorial debut with the animated NFB short, A Token Gesture (1976), Lanctôt made her first feature, L’Homme à tout faire (1980), which led to Sonatine (1984), the film that introduced Québec star Pascale Bussières. The movie, which took the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, recalls Antonioni-era approaches to cinema in its depiction of two confused teenage girls on the verge of suicide. The first picture the 61-year-old has directed since Le Piège d’Issoudun (2003), Suzie reunites Lanctôt with Bussières, this time taking on the role of a confused fortysomething. Early on, she abandons her autistic son (Gabriel Gaudreault) in the back of a cab driven by the film’s title character. Suzie (Lanctôt herself) is a 58-year-old who’s been in mourning since her husband skipped town with her daughter, and took her with him to Morocco. Like Martin Scorsese’s Travis Bickle, the only way Suzie can handle the pain of the night is by driving a cab through it. Like Taxi Driver, the movie is all about shots of a cab sleep-driving through city streets. Neon colours bleed into each other; sodium lamplight flares off the windshield. Suzie emerges a little from her mute, quasi-catatonic state when she decides she has to do something about 10-year-old Charles, a strange, difficult 10-year-old, who according to his father (Normand Daneau), is an “extra-terrestrial.”Lanctôt’s entire movie tracks one long, dark night of the soul. In fact, it happens to be Halloween night, and urban demons are everywhere, hounding Suzie and Charles. At one point, the woman and the boy descend into a purgatorial all night poker game presided over by a female dealer wearing a cowboy hat and big, bad dark glasses (inimitable rock ‘n’ roll singer Nanette Workman). In an offbeat and ambiguous moment of triumph, the kid plays and wins repeatedly, arousing suspicions that could turn nasty.In another key scene, Charles’ parents, Viviane and Pierre, engage in an interminable, over-acted shouting match, so long that when I returned to the theatre after an emergency trip to a distant men’s room, they were still at it. As the long night’s journey nears its end, cops intervene, and in the flat light of a police station, some kind of resolution occurs. But we have no idea whether the 10-year-old boy, or the 58-year-old woman, will ever escape their mute anguish. In Lanctôt’s comments about her movie, which even when it’s misfiring benefits from her image choices and tightly controlled performance, she quotes a line from Pink Floyd: “We’re just two lost souls swimming in a fishbowl.”
Print the Legend
La vraie nature de Bernadette is one of the titles on a recently released box set called Hommage – Gilles Carle. The other Carle pictures in the package are La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965), the moviemaker’s NFB-produced debut feature, La mort d’un bûcheron (1973), Les corps céleste (1973), and La Tête de Normande St-Onge (1975). Like Bernadette, the latter three movies were produced by Pierre Lamy, the first Québec independent to take a shot at full-length fiction. For every box set sold, $1.50 will go to the Fondation Maison Gilles Carle. The group will attempt to raise backing for the creation of a facility offering support to people living with Parkinson’s and related diseases.Carle, now in an advanced stage of PD, made it to the launch of the DVD set at the Montreal rep house, the Cinéma du Parc. As usual, his conjoint, singer Chloé Sainte-Marie, was by his side, and Micheline Lanctôt read a tribute that quoted a celebrated line from John Ford’s 1962 western, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. In Ford’s elegy for a dying era, a newspaper editor says to James Stewart, “This is the West, sir, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”Lanctôt linked her first director to Ford because there’s a wild western feel to Carle films like Red (1970). As for the editor’s dictum, “it could apply to you, dear Gilles,” Lanctôt read from her text. “In your life and every one of your films, who better than you has known how to transform the real into the magnificent crucible of your singular imagination – you the surrealist, the lover, the living.”Not only has Carle’s lively spirit challenged stuffy conventions, he was, as Lanctôt pointed out, “the first truly popular Quebec director, the first fiction director to compete in Cannes, the first and the only to create heroines larger than nature.” Carle was the first in everything, and that’s part of his legend. For Lanctôt, even though he is now silent, he remains an inspiration.
On the Beach
A year ago, Denis Villeneuve flew to the Côte d’Azur for a screening of his film, Next Floor, which picked up a Cannes 2008 best short prize and went on to win awards at numerous other events. This year the moviemaker’s Polytechnique, his first feature since Maelström (2000), is one of three Quebec pictures slotted into the festival’s Quinzaine des réalisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) sidebar.The nod from Cannes tops the critical and box-office successes of a picture that many people objected to before its winter release. Some couldn’t understand why anyone would make a film about Marc Lépine’s shooting massacre of fourteen female engineering students in 1989 (see March Inside Quebec). But not only did Polytechnique play well for Quinzaine programmers, Telefilm Canada screened the film at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and the Bloc Québécois showed it to parliamentarians as a vivid demonstration of the need for gun control. As Polytechnique continues to make the rounds, Villeneuve is in Jordan, shooting Incendies, an adaptation of Wajdi Mouawad’s successful play about twins who travel to the Middle-East in search of their father, presumed dead for years, and a brother they never heard of.The other two Quebec-made movies in the Quinzaine are Denis Côté’s Carcasses and Xavier Dolan-Tadros’ J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother). Coté, an ex-film critic who wrote for the recently deceased weekly, Ici, has been earning acclaim on the film fest circuit with ultra low budget, serious- minded films like Elle veut le chaos (2008). Carcasses blends fiction and documentary to portray an old guy who continually takes apart and re-builds the old cars he stashes at the end of a country road.It’s a no-brainer to predict that Xavier Dolan’s J’ai tué ma mère will be a hot item in Cannes and sizzle for months to come – especially if it’s as bold as its title. Dolan, a onetime child actor who dubbed Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley for the French versions of the Harry Potter films, began writing I Killed My Mother when he was 17. At 19, failing to secure backing from Telefilm Canada and Quebec’s SODEC, he financed production with his own acting money. Once the film was almost complete, SODEC came on board, and recently a representative of the French sales agent operation, Rézo Film, flew to Montreal to grab world rights.In his debut as a writer-director, Dolan plays the lead, a young gay man who doesn’t get along very well with mom. Dolan, who cultivates massive wavy pompadours and a sulky expression, suggests a cross between Johnny Depp and 1950’s star, Sal Mineo. He freely admits that the relationship he depicts is based on his own problems with his actual mother and told entertainment journalist Brendan Kelly that things have improved, especially after he stopped living with her.
Spike and Yoko
The Montreal media got worked up over recent visitations from two iconic figures: Spike Lee and Yoko Ono. Lee appeared at the Cinémathèque québécoise to open a retrospective of his movies the CQ programmed with Vues d’Afrique’s 25th Pan-Africa International Film Festival.While in Montreal, Lee promised to return when a new version of the venerable arthouse, the Cinéma Parallèle, opens in a new culture venue slated to be constructed on a lot facing the St. Laurent Boulevard métro station. The Parallèle was originally housed in tiny storefront locations on The Main until it became integrated into the imposing mdeia art palace, Ex-Centris. The cinema is still there even though Ex-Centris founder Daniel Langlois shut off the projectors in two adjacent theatres, a blackout mourned by cinephiles who showed up on the last night for candle-lit funeral rites.The indie film scene fears that the Parallèle’s days are numbered, which is why Claude Chamberlan, who co-created it and the Festival du nouveau cinéma years ago, has been scrambling to find a stable location. Spike Lee would show up at a launch because he’s dealt with Chamberlan since the 1960’s when his buddy Claude was among the first to program his work.With typically ebullient whimsy, Chamberlan shot off a release headed FIRST SUBWAY STATION DEDICATED TO WORLD CINEMA, as if movie geeks would be catching Iranian animation and the latest Coen Brothers flick as trains roared by on the Green Line. “Paris has its Louvre metro station,” Chamberlan wrote, “Montreal now has the unique opportunity to have a metro station dedicated to cinema.” When Yoko Ono made her much-anticipated entrance at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts, the scene was right out of Fellini. Still cameras flashed and camcorder monitors multiplied her image as she sat down for a press conference backed by sky and clouds through the MMFA’s big windows. John Lennon’s widow wore a black suit and hat tilted at a rakish angle, her shades, as always, inexplicably perched on the tip of her nose.For a few minutes, Ono fielded questions about the exhibition, Imagine: The Peace Ballad of John & Yoko. Running until June 21 free of charge, it’s a multimedia show of film, video, photographs, drawings, and interactive pieces, some of it originals, and some copies. Haunted by the constantly repeating sound of John’s voice calling to his Yoko, the exhibition radiates out from the couple’s War Is Over bed-in, the 1969 happening in Montreal’s Queen Elizabeth Hotel. To promote world peace, John and Oko lolled around in their pyjamas, talking to an endless stream of reporters, supporters, and detractors. John composed “Give Peace a Chance” and recorded it with whoever happened to be in their suite.During the media preview that followed Ono’s press conference, I sat down on the replica of the big white bed. A photographer who was prowling around the exhibition aimed her camera at me. She wore her jet black hair in bangs and shades covered her eyes. I slipped on my shades and flashed the peace V. She smiled, clicked, and gave me a thumbs up. It was a shot she wanted.
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.