by Maurie Alioff
There was a time when talent and professionalism were never enough to satisfy the expectations of Québécois film culture. Maybe because post-1960’s Quebec defined itself as a society of defiant outsiders engaged in an endless battle with hostile forces, moviemakers – like other artists – strutted their stuff as visionary rebels.
For instance, Marc-André Forcier, whose reputation was established by pictures like 1983’s Au clair de la lune, still comes on as the archetypal enfant terrible, making off-kilter movies that fuse working class earthiness with crazed fantasies. The multi-talented Gilles Carle, now stricken by Parkinson’s Disease, is an iconoclast who shattered the boundaries between art cinema and mainstream pictures. The late Claude Jutra came out of the closet before the expression existed, promoted anti-authoritarianism in his work, and killed himself rather than succumb to the Alzheimer’s Disease that hit him tragically young.
Of all the provocateurs in Québécois cinema, Jean-Claude Lauzon was the most untamed. Blogger Neil Lee recalls how Lauzon thought nothing of hitting on Jaime Lee Curtis in the grossest possible way, or refusing Norman Jewison’s offer of a production deal because he had no desire to “make a big pile of shit.” Even after his success on the international film scene, Lauzon bragged about his friendships with bikers and people who had been murdered.
Jean-Claude, who died ten years ago at age 44, emerged from a poverty-stricken Montreal neighbourhood to become the acclaimed writer-director of two features: Un zoo la nuit (1987) and Léolo (1992), one of those movies that if you’ve seen it, never stops haunting you. Lauzon himself was possessed and tormented by his restless, obsessive imagination. He once told me during an interview that he sometimes thought of suicide as “someone unplugging my TV, disconnecting my cable, so that I would see only snow.”
Ironically, Lauzon went down in flames doing one of the few things that calmed his spirit. “I love to be up there,” he said about flying bush planes into the wild. “It’s hard for me to explain, this feeling of movement and being suspended. When I have gas in my airplane, I don’t really fucking care.” In August of 1997, Lauzon was flying home with his girlfriend, TV star Marie-Soleil Tougas, when he lost control of his seaplane and crashed near a remote Inuit village.
In December, thoughts about Jean-Claude were stirred up by a tribute to his meteoric life. On a new CD called Le Zoo – Un hommage à Jean-Claude Lauzon, poems he wrote while living out the transition between street punk and artist, are set to music. Performers including eclectic pop star Stefie Shock, singer-songwriter Jean Leloup, actor Gilbert Sicotte, and omnipresent film star Pascale Bussières offer interpretations of Lauzon’s earliest shots at self-expression. Unsurprisingly, they have titles like Mon Education, Mélancolie, and Il était déja tard … il était déja loin (It Was Already Too Late … He Was Already In the Distance).
Both the album and last year’s book, Jean-Claude Lauzon, le poète, were initiated by ex-National Film Board of Canada distribution executive, André Petrowski. In Jean-Claude’s mythic storyline, Petrowski played the surrogate father who nudged the burgeoning thief into a creative life. The quasi-autobiographical Léolo honours Petrowski with a dedication and a mysterious character who mentors the film’s vulnerable young protagonist the same way Petrowski supported Lauzon.
Pigs in France
Jean-Claude Lauzon’s Un Zoo la Nuit was produced by the renowned veteran, Roger Frappier (Jésus de Montréal, La Grande Séduction) and Pierre Gendron, whose company, Zoofilms, made 2007’s box-office winner, Les 3 P’Tits Cochons (The Three L’il Pigs). Gendron and his coproducer, Christian Larouche, recently celebrated the sale of their dramedy about three unfaithful men to TFM Distribution, one of France’s top operations.
The French buzz for Cochons, which has earned over $4.5 million in Québec, started at November’s showcase event, Cinéma du Quebec à Paris. TFM, distributors of high-profile titles like The Departed, Match Point, and the Edith Piaf bio, La Vie en Rose, will release Les 3 P’Tits Cochons on at least 150 screens and spend many euros on selling the picture.
Gendron and Larouche are confident that comedian-actor Patrick Huard’s directorial debut will find an audience, but they also know that Québécois pictures are often a tough sell in the motherland. While C.R.A.Z.Y. and La Grande Séduction did well, numerous movies have tanked, the most recent example being the devastating failure of Denys Arcand’s L’âge des ténèbres. A traditional explanation is French distaste for the Québécois version of the language and unwillingness to relate to joual expressions like Ostie de tata de crisse!, even when subtitled.
2007 ended without a theatrical hit even remotely comparable to the 2006 monster success story, Bon Cop Bad Cop. While a few pictures like Ma fille mon ange (dad tries to stop his daughter from performing on an XXX website) and Nitro (husband searches for a healthy human heart that could save his dying wife) drew sizeable audiences, there were major disappointments like Surviving My Mother and Ma tante Aline.
A few auteur films, notably Continental – A Film without Guns and Bernard Émond’s latest meditation on human suffering, Contre toute espérance (Summit Circle), have connected with critics and small audiences. A trio of humanistic and ecologically minded docs, Des nouvelles du Nord, Le peuple invisible, and Le dernier continent, which earned $500,000 within two weeks of its release, are also making an impression.
As for the ongoing saga of Denys Arcand’s L’âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness), the most anticipated movie of the year lost 53% of its box-office in its second week of release and tumbled to a market share of 8.2%. By the end of December, the movie’s receipts were pushing toward $1 million, far from earth-shaking for a major Québec film, especially one from a famous, Oscar-winning moviemaker. On the other hand, in one month three paralyzing blizzards kept viewers away from several movies, not just Arcand’s.
For some, the thought of Céline Dion embarking on an acting career is frightening enough to send them screaming into the night. Céline’s musical chops and production values are Vegas class, but her syrupy sentimentality, combined with hatchet-faced ambition, don’t exactly play well with non-fans.
As for believers, they will be delighted to know that producer Denise Robert’s company, Cinemaginaire, is developing a project for Madame Angeli. In the projected Canadian-American coproduction, the pop diva will play the late opera diva, Maria Callas. Writer-director-actress, and frequent Robert collaborator, Denise Filiatrault has signed on to coach Céline into the part. The promise of Filiatrault’s expertise must be a confidence booster. Reportedly, Céline has dreams in which she effusively thanks the Academy for her first Oscar.
Another project in development at Cinemaginaire is actress Pascale Bussières‘ first screenplay, a period story about a Canadian woman she compares to that 19th century gal of the American Wild West, Calamity Jane. Bussières, who brilliantly played Québec singing legend Alys Robi in Ma vie en Cinémascope, assumes that she will be cast as the larger-than-life character in her script. Meanwhile, actress-director Micheline Lanctôt, whose professional breakthrough was her indelible performance as Richard Dreyfuss’s girlfriend in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, recently wrapped Suzie, the first picture she’s directed since 2004.
A variety of pictures in various stages of production include Alain Desrochers‘ Wushu Warrior, which the director of Nitro filmed in Shanghai and actor Luc Picard’s second feature as a director, the Quebec-Gothic, effects-heavy Babine. Another nightmarish story about a strange little boy, Nobel Prize winner Doris Lessing’s The Fifth Child, will be produced by Montreal’s adventurous Martin Paul-Hus and renowned British filmmaker Jeremy Thomas (Sexy Beast, many of Bernardo Bertolucci’s films).
Pirates of Montreal
Known on the Internet as maven, Montreal’s Géremi Adam is a camcorder pirate with a virtuoso touch. Until he got busted by the RCMP, Adam taped hit films and then used his tech skills to make them look something like bona-fide releases. Adam then uploaded to the web, where street vendors and other illicit distributors bought his product.
Adam will sidestep the harshest possible consequences because he was pinched before tough new anti-camcording laws, instigated by Hollywood pressure, kicked in. There is now speculation, both happy and sad, that Montreal might lose its status as one of the world’s top providers of bootlegged movies. On the other hand, certain experts argue that the hoards of Canadian buccaneers threatening the survival of the American movie industry are strictly figments of the Hollywood imagination.
Everybody Loves Harry
With his profuse white curls and amused grin, 80-year-old Harry Gulkin is one of the best known and admired figures on the Montreal film scene.
A producer in the 1970s and early 1980s, Gulkin worked with Anthony Bedrich to bring Ted Allan’s adaptation of his short story Lies My Father Told Me to the screen. Directed by Ján Kadár, this heartfelt picture about a boy’s relationship with his Orthodox Jewish grandfather in 1920s Montreal won a best foreign film Golden Globe, picked up a screenplay Oscar nomination, and took the Etrog (Canada’s pre-Genie award) for top movie of 1976. Gulkin’s other credits included Lionel Chetwynd’s adaptation of Hugh MacLennen’s novel Two Solitudes (1978), Mordecai Richler’s children’s story, Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang (1978), and Mort Ransen’s Bayo (1985).
In 1987, Gulkin began a new career at the Quebec funding agency SODEC, where as a project manager, he was trusted, respected, and even loved by filmmakers who consulted with him – especially young writers and directors who have told me how much they appreciated his unequivocal support. Last November, on the cusp of Harry’s retirement from SODEC, his friends and colleagues celebrated his 80th birthday at the Écomusée du fier monde, a museum devoted to Montreal’s working class history, an appropriate venue considering Gulkin’s youthful attraction to Communism. Harry is both a serious, reflective person and a chuckling bon-vivant who shows up at numerous parties. He’s no longer at SODEC, but whatever he decides to do now, Harry will continue to have a lot of fun.
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.