Inside Quebec: Summer 2018
by Maurie Alioff.
(June 24, 2018 – Montréal, Québec) The number one event of the summer is the release of Denys Arcand’s first movie in four years. It tops the hot list not only because Arcand is one of the world’s most talented and provocative filmmakers, his last two pictures 2007’s L’âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness) and 2014’s Le regne de la beauté (An Eye for Beauty) were disappointments from the guy who made highly regarded films like Le Déclin de l’empire Americain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986), Jésus de Montréal (1989), and 2003’s Oscar-winning Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). Since the new picture was announced last summer, a drama has underscored the writer-director’s latest, La Chute de l’empire Americain (The Fall of the American Empire). Is Denys Arcand back on track?
He is. And triumphantly. As with his best films, Arcand mashes up comedy, drama, social satire, and irresistible narrative drive. Once again, the writer-director has tossed various ingredients into what he called during the film’s press conference, the “blender” of screenwriting.
One of those ingredients is a real-life story that caught Arcand’s eye a few years ago. In 2010, two men got shot to death in an upscale Old Montreal boutique. The attack was probably a settling of accounts hit on the owner of the shop, Haitian gang leader Ducarme Joseph. Not on the site, Joseph eventually went down in another hail of bullets.
In Arcand’s take on the true crime story, a gangsta duo sticks up the shop, which is a drop point for millions in dirty money. During a shoot-out, a philosophy PhD (Alexandre Landry), who’s been unhappily moonlighting as a courier, pulls up to the store for a delivery. He finds two gym bags loaded with cash, and without much moral angst, shoves them into his truck. It doesn’t take Pierre-Paul long to build a crew that will help him clean up his newly acquired dirty money.
Recalling the groups of friends and/or collaborators in several other Arcand stories, Pierre-Paul’s “gang” comprises a pony-tailed, just released from jail biker gangster who, absurdly, has been studying for an MBA (Rémy Girard); an ex-girlfriend (Florence Longpré); an ethereally gorgeous escort (Maripier Morin) who becomes the love of his life; the Haitian who survived the shoot-out at the boutique (Patrick Émmanuel Abellard); and charmingly corrupt lawyer (Pierre Curzi). In one brilliantly witty sequence, the smooth operator activates an international network of money-laundering banks and financial institutions. It’s like a master class in how to benefit from dirty dough.
The Fall of the American Empire opens on a lengthy dialogue between Pierre-Paul and his annoyed girlfriend. Set in a diner and recalling the opening of Pulp Fiction, the scene introduces the young PhD delivering a tirade with fervour resembling Tim Roth’s in Tarantino’s film. Intelligence is a handicap he rants. The stupid and corrupt rule society. Pierre-Paul is an intelligent, highly educated person who shows compassion and love for the disadvantaged. But he needs to work as a courier to survive.
An incompetent criminal, our anti-hero learns how to tough it out, evading the persistent cops hot on his trail (Louis Morissette and Maxim Roy). Much of the film’s story tension derives from the cat and mouse game between Pierre-Paul’s crew and the police. It peaks when the lawyer says to the cops, “You do your work, I do mine. That’s how society works.”
The Fall of the American Empire, originally entitled The Triumph of Money, is haunted by images of real homeless people, some of them carefully composed close-ups. “We asked if we could do their portraits,” Arcand said at the press conference, “got the rights and paid them like actors.” He also talked about his admiration for social protest like Occupy Wall Street. These actions “could have a great result but you never know, things could get worse.”
While the movie jabs away at the corruption and cynicism of a world in the era of the crashing American Empire, it doesn’t, as Pierre Curzi put it at the press conference attended by the lead actors, producer Denise Robert and associate producer Dominique Besnehard, demonize money. It’s neutral. “Capital is a means. Men and women make it good or evil”
Moreover, although Pierre-Paul is breaking bad, signing onto Babylon, as Rastafari would put it, the picture’s narrative drive makes you want him and his collaborators to get away with their schemes. La Chute plays like a caper film.
At the press conference, Arcand said that he also wanted them to get away. “This is a man who is charitable. He is a volunteer in homeless shelters and stuff like that. He is the nicest person in the universe, and yet he steals some money. So what do you do with that? You’re always rooting for him; you want him to get away. And the saving grace is that eventually some of this money will help him to make a decent living, and you know they are going to give half of it away, so it’s a sort of justification.”
After mentioning that the film taught me so much about money laundering, I drove around all morning looking for a bag of cash, Arcand laughed as he responded to my question about his depiction of corrupt characters. He condemns them, but he also seems amused by them.
“Amused, and I’m also trying to find their qualities. They say is that in melodrama, you have absolutely good characters and absolutely bad characters. In a tragedy, everybody is right. They all have a saving grace. They all have a good part in a dark part. I always try to write according to those rules. There is never someone entirely wrong. Or entirely bad. You try to make the situation as complex as our lives are.”
La Chute de l’empire Americain won’t appear on English-Canadian screens until later in the year, probably after screening at the Toronto International Film Festival. Some people are upset that the June release in Quebec foregoes even one English-subtitled print. But the distributor’s decision has nothing to do with disrespecting the Anglo community. Seville Films, an affiliate of Entertainment One, explains that for various reasons, SONY Pictures, which picked up the American rights, wants no English-language version in circulation until the US launch.
A few weeks before the opening of Arcand’s new picture, the industry handed out its annual awards at the Quebec Cinema Gala. Now called the Prix Iris, formerly the Prix Jutra, the name change triggered by charges of pedophilia against namesake filmmaker Claude Jutra, the big winner was the kind of movie Denys Arcand would never film.
But given its cleverness and moviemaking chops, I wasn’t surprised that Robin Aubert’s Les Affamés picked up eight prizes at this year’s gala, despite its being what for some is not entirely kosher. When I interviewed the writer-director at TIFF 2017, where he won the Canada Goose Award for Best Canadian Feature, Aubert told me that his zombie tale didn’t exactly get a warm welcome at the funding agencies. “We have difficulty in Québec with genre film,” he said, echoing a complaint that’s widespread among filmmakers, particularly younger ones.
When actor Rémy Girard introduced a clip from Les Affamés at the gala, the Denys Arcand stalwart tsk-tsked that he’s never seen a zombie flick. He added, however, that Aubert’s is different because it relays metaphorical content.
Tell that to Aubert, for whom George Romero’s hyper-metaphorical Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead were formative experiences when he first saw them. At TIFF, he also told me that Michael Jackson’s Thriller was a big influence on his movie, pointing out that John Landis, the director, made A Werewolf in London.
A few years ago, no genre picture, however witty, would have taken eight awards, including best picture. In 2018, the film, set in the pastoral corner of rural Quebec where Aubert owns a house, instantly catapulted him into the industry’s top ranking status. And he couldn’t be more different from moviemakers from the past, or Xavier Dolan.
Les Affamés is loaded with shocks, but it also recalls the suggestiveness of 1940s Val Lewton horror productions. “I love suggestion,” says Aubert. “For me it’s more creepy to hear something than to see the thing. When you are in the woods, and you hear a coyote, it’s scary. If you see one you run, but hearing it in the distance is more unsettling.”
Other major Prix Iris winners included Best Supporting Actress Brigitte Poupart in Les Affamés, best actress Maude Guerin (Chien de garde), best actor Christian Bégin (Le problème d’infiltration), best supporting actor Emmanuel Schwartz (Hochelaga, Terre des Âmes), and Best screenplay Nicole Bélanger (Les rois mongols).
The Iris Tribute honoured long-time maverick writer-director André Forcier who appeared on stage flanked by actors who worked with him over the years. It was a touching moment. Robin Aubert considers Forcier to be one of his heroes and influences because he’s always been one of the “bad guys.”
The year’s most deluxe film, François Girard’s Hochelaga, Terre des Âmes (Hochelaga, Land of Souls), displays impeccable, almost pristine production values. Naturally, it won the Prix Iris for Nicholas Bolduc’s cinematography and other technical awards, along with the Iris for Best Supporting Actor.
Hochelaga starts in the present tense and then tracks back in time, relaying 750 years of Montreal and Quebec history in episodes dramatizing a range of stories from a romance between a young Algonquin woman (Tanaya Beatty) and a Québécois trapper (Emmanuel Schwartz, pictured) to the clumsy moment when Iroquois Chief Tennawake (Wahiakeron Gilbert) meets explorer Jacques Cartier (Vincent Perez) and a suspenseful episode about the 19th century rebellion against British control of French territory.
When I am up on Mount Royal over the skyline of Montreal, I sometimes speculate about the distant past. Who lived here with the same sky overhead? How did they live? What did they look like?
“You can be in Piccadilly Circus in London, or in Paris, and have the same flashback,” Girard told me at TIFF 2017. “Who was talking, who was having a discussion 1000 years ago? It is in all of us. To feel the presence of those who were there before us, in the same place. Looking at Mount Royal, feeling the same winter, and a bond. If there is a way to encapsulate what the film says, it is about the bond above time and through time.”
It’s become an annual ritual for exhibitor Vincent Guzzo to complain that Quebec filmmakers tend to ignore audiences and that the Cinema Awards don’t reflect the handful of pictures that earn big box office. Not one of the top hits won at the gala: De père en flic 2, Bon Cop Bad Cop 2, Le trip à trois, Junior majeur, Ballerina. According to stats, De père en flic 2 enjoyed 683,360 entries; Hochelaga, which has earned about $800,000, 79,739 entries. And so on.
Two high-profile Quebec films that played TIFF will probably figure at next year’s Quebec Cinema Gala. Both Kim Nguyen’s Eye On Juliet and Carlos and Jason Sanchez’s Allure (originally entitled A Worthy Companion) are unusual, even strange, love stories.
Oscar nominated for his 2012 film Rebelle, Nguyen’s Eye on Juliet zeroes in on an American drone operator (Joe Cole) who falls hard for a young Moroccan woman (Lina El Arabi) living in the desert region he’s surveilling for an oil company. For much of the film there is zero flesh and blood connection between the two.
“It’s like a surreal representation of a zeitgeist,” Nguyen told me during a TIFF interview. “For me, that weird translator (of the drone operator’s voice into Arabic) is how we are tweeting each other, sending text messages that have only four or five words, and we think we understand each other. We think we communicate more, but we are communicating less, and we are confused.”
The characters in Allure are also confused. A thirty something rebel (Evan Rachel Wood) invites a confused teenager (Julia Sarah Stone) to live with her. The two bond, the situation gets tense and then dangerous. The Sanchez Brothers, who are large format still photographers of precisely designed and cinematic images, “wanted our film to be as beautiful as the subject matter is dark,” said Jason at TIFF. “There is a seduction at play, a give and take, a push and pull. To honour that, the imagery has to be seductive to viewers.”
When Montreal producer Kevin Tierney died in May, far too young at age 67, his family announced there would be no funeral. He wanted a “lively Irish” memorial, which was so typical of him, a guy who more than anything else, savoured life.
The memorial, at the city’s Segal Centre, brought together family, friends, and buddies from the film industry, including Xavier Dolan, producer Rock Demers, who Kevin worked for before venturing out on his own, and publicist David Novek.
When I first met Kevin long ago, he was handling movie PR for Novek after being an English teacher in Africa and China, and a film critic and teacher. He made an instant and indelible impression. Vibrant, quick moving, he radiated impish humour, even when he wasn’t wisecracking or telling a story about some absurdity. And when he did joke, he could be very funny, as he was in the screenplay he co-wrote for Bon Cop Bad Cop, the hugely popular movie that was his best-known production.
On top of that, Kevin was always available to give a boost to burgeoning artists, cheer up old friends with problems, encourage his daughter Brigid, collaborate with filmmaker son Jacob, enjoy life with his wife Terry. As David Novek wrote, “His heart of gold always found time for the people and the world around him.”
Also see: The 2018 Prix Iris.
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.