Inside Québec – February 2009
by Maurie Alioff
Exile on Strip Street
Kevin Tierney produced the crowd-pleasing farce Bon Cop, Bad Cop (2006), but he also has a jones for offbeat pictures like his upcoming comedy, The Trotsky, and for movies that aspire to serious film art. A past chairman of the Cinémathèque québécoise, Tierney admires and supports local auteur work, for instance Guylaine Dionne’s pensive debut feature, Les Fantômes des trois Madeleine. His championing of this film, which played Cannes 2000’s Quinzaine des Réalisateurs, led to his collaboration with Dionne, writer and director of the just-released Serveuses demandées (Waitresses Wanted).
In her story about an illegal immigrant’s initiation into the sex industry, Dionne edges closer to the mainstream. Not as deeply interiorized, and more easily accessible than Les Fantômes des trois Madeleine, the film attempts to merge social issue exposé with intimate relationship drama although in the final mix, Dionne favours the movie’s personal story over its probing into the ruthless exploitation of helpless young women.
Like Les Fantômes des trois Madeleine, which takes a woman, her daughter, and her mother on an existential road trip, Serveuses demanedées depicts emotionally intricate female relationships. The movie focuses on the tender, amorous, spasmodically explosive connection between Priscilla (Janaina Suaudeau), a vulnerable young Brazilian whose visa has expired, and Milagro, (Clara Furey), a Québécoise who takes the baby-faced girl under her wing. Well into the picture, the two drive off to visit Milagro’s daughter Chloé (Marie-Eve Beauregard) and mother Johanne (Anne Dorval), currently living together in a remote village. During the long sequence, Dionne drops the immigration scenario and returns to her fascination with the cross-generational interplay between love and estrangement.
As for the film’s social issue, Milagro is a stripper who initiates Priscilla into the only job she can get: taking off her clothes in Montreal and Toronto clubs, where most of the girls are illegals from all over the world. Between pole dances they get brutalized by the creeps who manage them, threatened with busts and deportations by the cops (one of them an icy, cynical Mountie played by Colm Feore), and blasted by the Canadian winter. The movie portrays the mean season with all its bleak skies, freezing streets, and snowplows lumbering through filth. Priscilla tries to adapt. Ironically, Milagro dreams of grabbing Chloé and escaping with her to the Brazilian beaches Priscilla played on when she was a child.
While the movie’s strip clubs are meant to be seen as sexist traps, their displays of luscious young women engaged in nude pas-de-deux make them the ideal incubator for the burgeoning lesbian relationship between child-faced Priscilla, and streetwise, supple Milagro. The apotheosis of the relationship plays out in a scene where Milagro teaches her inhibited protegé stripper moves with effortless grace.
At this point in Serveuses demanedées, Clara Furey – daughter of Carole Laure, the sexiest actor in Canadian film history – makes an indelible impression. With her cupid bow lips, dark eyes, and melancholic sexuality, Furey is a screen natural although she has been telling entertainment journalists that screen acting interests her far less than her funky dance performances.
Whatever the merits of Serveuses demanedées, the picture’s opening weekend was a serious disappointment. Quebec audiences have been buying fewer tickets for homegrown productions, and gravitating toward U.S. movies. In 2008, The Dark Knight snapped up $8.7 million while Iron Man grabbed $4.8. Only one Quebec film took enough money to make the year’s top ten list: Cruising Bar 2 with $3.5 million.
Bye Bye’s Blooper
As the world eagerly awaited the moment of Barack Obama’s inauguration, the CBC’s French-language network thought it would be a good idea to make bizarre racial jokes about the new President. Radio Canada’s annual New Year’s Eve kiss-off to the dying year usually goes for irreverent humour, but rather than deliver clever barbs about the year’s newsmakers, Bye Bye 2008 displayed all the wit and wisdom of the nitwits whose websites “prove” that Obama is the Anti-Christ. After all, the Anti-Christ rides a white horse, and Barack’s mother was white!
Centuries after America’s black slaves were stripped of their African names, a thoughtful, graceful man who goes by his African name became the country’s leader. In response to this moving, hopeful event, one of Bye Bye’s sketches featured a lampoon of local, low-grade TV personality Denis Lévesque interviewing President Obama. Apart from its ridiculous premise, the sketch grasped for sleazy yuks by having the interviewer make racist comments to a concept of Obama that didn’t reach the level of even a bad SNL caricature. In a lame copycatting of Sacha Baron Cohen’s Ali G and Borat, Levesque babbles about all blacks looking alike, women hiding their purses from them, and the men’s big dicks.
Baron Cohen’s clueless, bigoted idiots Ali G and Borat were brilliant comic creations who interacted with real big shots and regular people, prodding them into revealing their own bigotry. In contrast, Bye Bye’s Barack bit played like knucklehead gross-out humour, far from anything resembling satire. Even if the sketch’s interviewer is supposed to be a clueless dumbbell, spouting the most blatant stereotypes imaginable in the context of a giddy New Years’ Eve special watched by 4 million people during two broadcasts is dubious at best. I doubt that the laughing, cheering studio audience was getting a fresh insight into racism.
Quebeckers, most of whom love Obama, complained loudly about Bye Bye 2008, especially wannabe gonzo comedian Jean-François Mercier’s appearance. At one point, Mercier, illogically representing Americans, bellows at the camera: “We’re not racist. It will be good to have a nigger in the White House. It will be convenient. Black on white will make it easier too shoot.” Not only is the “joke” frighteningly insensitive, it insults and condescends to the people who elected Barack Obama, and it’s coming from a place where blacks have trouble getting jobs as mailmen or subway ticket-takers.
Viewers also went ballistic over Bye Bye’s equally mirthless gags about onetime singing star, Nathalie Simard. Incredibly, Véronique Cloutier, the show’s co-producer and one of its key performers, happens to be the daughter of the singer’s ex-manager, Guy Cloutier, now doing time for the sexual abuse he lavished on Simard when she was a teenager.
Cloutier, and her professional partner/husband Louis Morissette seemed irritated and defensive even as they came up with their apologies and excuses. During an embarrassing press conference, Cloutier tremblingly recalled how she cried tears of joy the night Obama got elected. Over at Radio-Canada, VP Sylvain Lafrance said that the network was “sensitive to comments in the communications we have received in the press and on the Internet. We hear clearly the message that was sent to us.” Pathetically, Natalie Simard announced from her Dominican Republic refuge that she forgives her rapist’s daughter for ridiculing her on New Year’s Eve.
No More Movies
Just when the Bye Bye scandal began to wane, a new shocker buzzed the media. In the late 1990’s, Montreal software entrepreneur Daniel Langlois built the lavish multimedia complex Ex-Centris with some of the millions Microsoft paid him for his CGI application company, Softimage. Designed to create and exhibit film, video, and techno-art, the totally wired five-storey building’s trio of theatres became Montreal cinephiles’ beloved venue for independent movies, including Canadian and Québécois productions. Imagine their distress when last month, on the cusp of the culture palace’s tenth anniversary, Langlois announced that he would cancel regularly scheduled film screenings and use the rooms for the kinds of groundbreaking mixed media events he had in mind when he conceived of Ex-Centris.
When the news hit, jaws dropped. Filmmakers screen their work in the house that Daniel built. Local distributors of independent, foreign, and Canadian pictures depend on it for a big chunk of their revenue. The 41-year-old Cinéma Parallèle has been housed in one of Langlois’ theatres for a decade. And the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, at 37 Canada’s oldest fest, not only screens in Ex-Centris, Langlois once saved the event from financial ruin.
Louis Dussault, a local distributor, wrote an SOS letter, which was published in the daily, Le Devoir. Charles Tremblay of Quebec’s Metropole Films, Quebec distributor of movies handled by Toronto’s Mongrel Media, told the trade paper Playback, “The loss of Ex-Centris will drastically affect our acquisitions. It was already hard for us to place our films.” One of the few alternatives to Ex-Centris is the venerable Cinéma du Parc, which Langlois once bought, renovated, and then ditched when the 3-screener started haemorrhaging money.
The story peaked when Claude Chamberlan (pictured), of both Cinéma Parallèle and the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, told the daily La Presse that a new cinema complex in the works would somehow accommodate the FNC and the Parallèle. Moreover, Chamberlan seemed to imply that Langlois would be involved.
Faster than you can say “Wizard of Oz,” the festival, the Parallèle, and Ex-Centris itself shot off a fusillade of press releases disconnecting themselves from Chamberlan’s “hypothetical scenarios.” For some the charmingly irrepressible naughty boy of Boulevard Saint-Laurent, for others a flighty broche à foin – to use an ancient québécois expression – Chamberlan insisted that he never claimed Langlois would participate. Most likely, he was alluding to a new cultural centre that may one day be built on a location just south of Hooker Central at the corner of Ste- Catherine and St. Laurent, and near Café Cleopatra, an ancient strip club legendary for its drag acts.
Meanwhile, Live from Sundance
Nollywood Babylon, one of the Canadian documentaries that screened at Sundance 2009, is a vivacious tour of Nigeria’s madcap, ultra-low-budget, wildly successful film industry. For the L.A. Times’ Kenneth Turan, the film is “irresistible.”
Co-directed by Samir Mallal and Ben Addelman, this coproduction with the NFB was associate-produced by Don Lobel, who in 2005 programmed a tasty selection of Nollywood pictures at the Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, which is where Mallal and Addelman hooked up with the phenomenon.
On Sundance’s second-to-last day, I spoke to Mallal, who was still in Park City, on a Rocky Mountain high. Here’s what he had to say:
“I don’t think I’ve ever felt this way before. The programmers have been amazing, and Sundance is a place where they really highlight documentary. We met so many people, famous people, non-famous people who were just interested in checking out interesting films and learning about things they don’t know about. The best thing is meeting the other filmmakers interested in talking about film, their work and our work.
“The screenings have been great. Lancelot (unbelievably prolific director Lancelot Imasuen), the person we focus on in the film was here for a couple of screenings. People really respond. (As for possible sales), we’ve got a lot of interest. We should have something to announce in a couple of weeks.
“Sundance really is all about the nature of filmmaking and storytelling. And when you come to a festival like this, you see how there’s so many ways to go about telling a story. Nollywood shows an alternative to guerrilla filmmaking that is really interesting to a lot of people here in the world epicentre of guerrilla filmmaking. And it’s not cool to be snobby at Sundance. We’re all here together as professionals. Chris Rock was very interested in seeing the film.”
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.