Inside Quebec: Fall 2019
by Maurie Alioff
The year’s highest profile Canadian movie, a guaranteed multiple award-nominee, has turned out to be Sophie Deraspe’s Antigone. World premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, where it won the Canada Goose Award for best Canadian Feature, Antigone headed for Oscar consideration as Canada’s submission in the Academy’s Best International Feature Film category, formerly known as Best Foreign Film. Apparently, Academy honchos thought there was something vaguely demeaning about the word “foreign.” Perhaps the designation “Canada Goose” should also be reviewed.
“Supple and impassioned,” according to Variety and praised in many other reviews, Antigone is an ingenious re-telling of Sophocles’ often performed tragedy, for instance a 2015 production with Juliette Binoche in the title role. In Deraspe’s contemporary version of the ancient play, Antigone (first-time actress Nahomi Ricci in a luminously mesmerizing performance). Antigone is a high school student who has a close, loving relationship with her family: grandmother Méni (Rashida Oussaada), brothers Étéocle (Hakim Brahimi) and Polynice (Rawad El-Zein), and sister Ismène (Nour Belkhiria). They are Algerian refugees from a mountain village where Antogne’s parents were slaughtered during civil war, and without citizenship, their status in Canada is shaky.
The family’s vulnerability comes into harrowing focus when Étéocle, innocent of any wrongdoing, dies in a playground police shooting. His younger brother, Polynice, who has committed small-time crimes, gets locked up and threatened with deportation to the country where his parents died horribly. Antigone, like Sophocles’ original heroine, goes to self-sacrificial extremes as she rebels against powerful forces, in the case the justice system endangering her beloved family.
“When I first read Antigone in my early 20s,” Deraspe recalled in an interview, “I didn’t know that I would make films, but I knew I would do something related to art, and I would go back to that material I felt really strongly about.” The project was triggered by the notorious police shooting of teenage Fredy Villanueva in Montreal, and the deportation threat faced by his older brother, who like Polynice had problems with the law.
How did Deraspe fuse this real-life horror story with a classical tragedy? “It came to me just like that. It was a set up. If one of the boys’ sisters was an Antigone, what would she do for her brother, and for her family. The basic structure of the script came right from this. Creon the king would be the police and the court, all that is authority in our contemporary world.” Other characters took on modern forms, for instance the oracle became a spooky psychiatrist dressed in severe black.
At key points in the movie, Deraspe cuts away to rapid split screen montages that play with 21st Century hip hop, graffiti, social media, and hand signals. These segments, which contrast sharply with the movie’s overall visual approach, are an “adaptation of what the chorus was in ancient Greek plays,” Deraspe explains. Of course, the sequences also evoke the world of the film’s youthful principal characters, which contrast with grandmother Méni’s traditional mountain Berber songs, vividly coloured clothes, and powerful spirituality. The film is a deliberate mashup of differing cultural strains.
For Deraspe, the montages “sometimes feel like the pacing of music videos. Teens dancing, chanting, using all sorts of communication that are in social media.” The first sequence jumps onto the screen “when her brother gets shot, so it’s about him, and what people say about the situation. Some say racist things, others are praising him. It’s a mix.” The montages that follow synch to major turning points in the storyline.
Known for The Amina Profile, a National Film Board co-venture about a blogger who invented a persona she called the Gay Girl in Damascus, Deraspe is also a skillful cinematographer. She wasn’t just the DP on Antigone, she operated the camera. In a subtle way, Deraspe’s camerawork is very distinctive, favouring luminous high key shots, a style that has been called “airy.”
Describing her fluid shooting style Deraspe also reveals her directorial approach to material: “As a cinematographer, I’m a dancer. I do choreography with the actors. That’s where the airy feeling comes from. I am moving with them. I could give this job to someone else and concentrate on the actors, but to me the mise en scène, directing an actor, and moving the camera, I cannot disocciate them.”
Another picture benefitting from TIFF success, Matthew Rankin’s The Twentieth Century was a world premiere that won the City of Toronto award for Best First Canadian Feature, and then took the Festival du nouveau cinéma’s Most Promising Feature Film prize in its “National Competition.” A Winnipegger who migrated to Quebec and forged links to its film industry, Rankin’s picture was supported by Quebec’s funding agency SODEC and is in the spirit of the celebrated Winnipeg Film Group, particularly director Guy Madden.
It was Sir Wilfred Laurier who said that the twentieth century belonged to Canada, but hey, it could have been the country’s tenth prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, the subject of Rankin’s hallucinatory, riotous Heritage Minute from Hell. The movie imagines a young Mackenzie King (Daniel Beirne) as stumbling and bumbling through his early days as a would-be politician. Humiliated by an evil Governor General (Sean Cullen), trying to pass crazed tests of his skill at butter churning and baby seal clubbing, King obsesses on women’s shoes as an object of his masturbatory desire.
How much of the picture, with its blend of quasi-realistic sets and what look like pages from a graphic novel, derives from reality? Rankin scrutinized King’s journal, he told me “and had to fill in a few blanks. King talks a little bit about the sins that he would commit, but he didn’t exactly say what he had done.”
Thematically, Rankin says his movie critiques Canadian self-congratulation. “It is a bit of a termite burrowing into the fine woodwork of the Canadian Potemkin Village. I’m trying to expose the emptiness behind it.”
Another TIFF World Premiere, Louise Archambault’s And the Birds Rained Down, has been released in Québec to positive reviews and audience response. Archambault’s movie, based on Jocelyne Saucier’s novel, focuses on an eighty-year old woman (the venerated Andrée Lachapelle), who has been imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for most of her life. Gertrude’s life changes when a sympathetic relative brings her deep into a forest enclave where two elderly dropouts live free of societal corruption. She and Charlie (Gilbert Sicotte) engage in a romance that literally builds to a climax in an unusual and quite explicit sex scene. Meanwhile, guitar-playing Tom (Rémy Girard) releases his complicated feelings via Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits songs. A third hermit, Ted (Kenneth Welsh), drops dead at the beginning of the picture, leaving behind paintings that eventually express who he was and take on a metaphorical meaning.
For Archambault, another major character is the forest where most of the action unfolds. She told me during a TIFF interview, “It’s the elements, nature. It’s stronger than us, even though we’re good at destroying it in this period of time. And it’s beauty as well. The first art for me is the purity of nature.” The salvation of her characters lies in the fact they are “interconnected with that nature.”
At the time of writing, And the Birds Rained Down has taken in $1,654,450 during its Quebec release. On another plane of box office success, Émile Gaudreault’s Menteur earned $6,237,284. The movie is Gaudreault’s latest collaboration with comedian Louis-José Houde and producer Denise Robert. This time the director of Mambo Italiano and the De père en flic pictures came up with a fantasy-comedy about a compulsive liar whose bullshit becomes reality. If Menteur’s premise applied to Trump, he would become the greatest human being who ever lived.
Meanwhile, the year’s most hotly anticipated release, Xavier Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime, has, as I write, earned $290,875 at the Quebec box office. Factoring in screenings in Toronto and Vancouver the tally is about $300,000 cross-Canada.
Any new Dolan picture would be anticipated. The still youthful director-writer-actor is an international star, a regular in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. But this time around, Dolan is emerging in the aftermath of the hubbub around his first English-language picture, the US star-studded, $35 million The Death and Life of John F. Donovan. Stalled in post-production, the movie got panned after prestigious festival screenings and has barely been released. Whatever the merits of the film, or lack of them, one theory holds that despite all the praise heaped on Dolan, he has also been the brunt of harsh put-downs because he and many of his characters are gay. Maybe, goes this line of thought, he’s a victim of a homophobia that’s more unconscious than overt.
The new film’s title characters (Gabriel D’Almeida Freitas and Dolan himself) are not gay, but the storyline nudges them toward the possibility of tendencies. Friends since childhood, the two have a sexual identity crisis when they are asked to kiss for a scene in a student film.
During a Montreal press conference to launch the film’s October release, Dolan said, “What troubles them about this thing that is trying to break-in, and that permeates the entire movie, creating such tension, is that they are not actually attracted to each other, but they think they are in love. That is even more confusing. You can simply say ’Let’s try something and let’s sleep together. Let’s get this over with.’ They could have gone that way.
“Sexuality and physicality are not the problem. In their hearts, they suddenly start thinking of each other as potential lovers. And that is troubling because they have known each other forever, since the age of five, and now they are 30. So, where has that love been their entire lives? Why hasn’t sat love expressed itself before?”
On another level, Dolan wanted to make a film that celebrates long-term friendship. He cast actors, who are real-life friends playing buddies hanging out together, mugging, yakking, cracking in– jokes. “Tout le gang” as they say in Quebec where many touts le gang movies have been made. Take for example Denys Arcand’s Oscar-winning Les Invasions barbares.
The boys “feel most complete when they are together,” Dolan said. Eschewing his usual visual pyrotechnics, he went for a restrained, naturalistic approach, except for a few blowout moments like a fast motion party scene, and a lyrical moment of falling leaves that have a magical aura. On the other hand, “It was important to me that every shot of these boys would have a lot of foreground and background. You see at least two or three or four characters in the background in order to feel that they are inextricably one.”
For Dolan, “My friends are my family; my family are my friends. I found comfort and equilibrium in love and family.”
Montreal’s premium fall event is the Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC). This year, it played out smoothly and made audiences happy in the aftermath of recent reports of internal disruption. Julien Fonfrède, long-time programmer of the fest’s Anything Goes section, Temps Ø, told me that in fact the turmoil faded away long ago. “There was no drama whatsoever. Everything was fine. It’s just Claude.”
Claude is FNC Co-founder Claude Chamberlan, who retired in 2017. In an early summer interview, he threw grenades at the fest’s Executive Director, Nicolas Girard Deltru, accusing him of running “a culture of intimidation.” Fonfrède (pictured above), who has been communicating with Chamberlan, continued, “There was a huge crisis a few years ago. The festival had a big fight between Claude and Nicolas, and other people in the festival like former Co-director of programming Philippe Gajan. The board decided to keep Nicolas, so Claude and others left. Claude has not been in the festival for a year, a year and a half, even more. Things have changed.”
“Once,” Fonfrède continued, “the FNC was the elitist film festival, the auteur film festival. It’s not. It’s a big international film festival on a level with any other. The companies look at us as a big, prestigious international film festival where it’s very good to be represented, and we play all kind of films. We’ll be sure it’s quality, we’ll be sure it’s art.
“We’re known to be very selective in terms of identity. Lots of festivals play films that shouldn’t be there. We try not to do that. When Claude was there, he was more casual about the whole thing. Now we show only films we can defend.”
Among many highlights, Atom Egoyan was at the fest with his opening night film, Guest of Honour, and Palme d’Or winner, Bong Joon-ho’s jet black social satire Parasite screened. One of the world’s finest moviemakers, South Korean Bong Joon-ho made the thrilling, poetically evocative Memories of Murder, not to mention the genuinely strange monster movie, The Host. Meanwhile, from Nova Scotia, Heather Young’s Murmur, supported by Telefilm’s Talent to Watch Program, is a fascinating and times moving doc-fiction hybrid about a sixty-something woman (Shan MacDonald) whose love for animals might actually be a dangerous addiction. Young’s doc-fiction hybrid, which picked up the FIPRESCI Prize of TIFF’s Discovery Program, ventures far more deeply into the subject of sick, handicapped, and disturbed people being sustained by their furry friends.
The FNC also hosted an all-night marathon of the four Alien pictures. I probably would have binge watched the slithery movies, if not for a Jamaican, fuchsia-themed Sweet Sixteen party abundant with food and inspiring soul, reggae and dancehall music.
In late summer, Serge Losique’s World Film Festival bowed out until next year when he claims it will re-launch. Meanwhile the FNC was as Fonfrède put it, the big generalist international film festival.
Canada’s most visionary filmmaker ever, David Cronenberg, appeared at a special restoration of his most crazily disturbing film, Crash. The film plays like a story of enchantment. Characters performed by James Spader, Deborah Unger, Hollie Hunter, Rosanna Arquette, and Elias Koteas are convinced their sexual cravings can only be fulfilled by potentially fatal car crashes, not to mention licking and nuzzling wounds and scars.
At the Q and A, Cronenberg and his producer Robert Lantos told droll stories about the violent reactions to Crash. The film got an NC-17 rating in the US, where Jane Fonda asked her husband, who owned Newline, the distributor, to ban Crash on the grounds it was misogynist.
”The most serious attack at Cannes,” Cronenberg reminisced, “was by an English film critic, very well known for being very English, very nasty therefore. He said the film was pornographic, it was criminal, we should be put in jail. He wrote that too. In fact, the film was banned in West Minister, where most of the good cinemas are. And it is still banned there. If you screen the film there, you go to jail. I’m waiting for somebody to do it.”
JG Ballard, author of the novel Crash was in Cannes for the Q and A. “You have betrayed the book,” said a Finnish or Norwegian critic. “And Ballard said, ‘actually, it is better than my book.’”
Nearing the end of the Q and A, I told Cronenberg that Crash seems to fit more into today than it did back then. The film doesn’t seem to age at all ”Well, thank you. That’s always an interesting thing.” He replied. “When I was in Venice this year, and they were screening this print as part of their classics, they asked me what film of mine I would like to screen, aside from Crash. I suggested M Butterfly because it is not seen very often. And the audience thought it was a current film. That really pleases because it’s an old film.” What is David Cronenberg’s reaction to Crash when he watches it now? “I don’t watch it now,” Cronenberg answered. “When you’re in it, when you’re making it, you try to deal with the life of the characters, what they reveal to you and the fact that they are so obsessed with sex, but a very weird kind of sex. When you’re making the movie, that’s where you need to be. But now from this distance, I can see that it was a very strange movie.”
The Q and A ended with a scoop. After five years since his last picture, Maps to the Stars, Cronenberg says he will be directing a Netflix backed adaptation of his 2014 novel, Consumed. “It is in the works. Whether it’ll happen or not, you never know. But it is possible.” Lantos added that the project “is in the works,” and claimed he seduced Cronenberg into doing it.
”This is really kind of interesting, this whole binge watching thing,” Cronenberg said, “It’s very novelistic. You can get a lot of complexity, a lot of characters intertwined.”
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.