Inside Quebec – Summer 2019
by Maurie Alioff
(June 18, 2019 – Montréal, QC) In the midst of the coldest June weather in over a century, the film industry’s premier event, the Quebec Cinema Gala warmed the hearts of moviemakers awarded the Prix Iris. Now in the rear view mirror, but still on people’s minds, the Gala’s big winner was Ricardo Trogi’s autobiographical road comedy, 1991. A beaming Trogi (pictured above with cast & crew) was clearly delighted by the best picture, best director, and best Supporting actress (Sandrine Bisson) prizes, not to mention the audience award for the year’s favourite movie.
Meanwhile, Denys Arcand’s high profile, and relatively popular-in-Quebec, La Chute de l’empire Americain (The Fall of the American Empire) picked up only a single award (The Film Best Known Outside Quebec). Arcand’s producer and wife, Denise Robert, attended the gala and accepted the Iris.
Still onscreen in the U.S. as I write, the reviews of Arcand’s satirical caper film have ranged from positive to mixed. “With its galloping pace and strange criminal bedfellows,” says the New York Times, “this funny and engrossing film sometimes feels like the droll capers of the Ealing studio (maker of The Lavender Hill Mob among other small classics). But Arcand packs in a lot of pointed social and political commentary.”
Writing in the Journal de Montreal, Sophie Durocher deplored the fact that La Chute received only a couple of nominations. As a Prix Iris voter who ticked off several categories for Arcand’s movie, I myself was surprised. By the way, Dupuis also critiqued the Gala itself, a pleasant annual get-together, for what she called its “silly décor and jokes that fell flat.”
As the event began, its hostesses, Guylaine-Tremblay and Édith-Cochrane, descended to the stage suspended in hammocks. Nominees and presenters sat at tables a la Golden Globes, a studio audience behind them in bleacher seats.
Early on, Tremblay and Cochrane cracked a joke about the prevalence of “films d’ado,” youth films like Une colonie and La disparition des lucioles (The Fireflies are Gone). Une colonie’s Émilie Bierre, Prix Iris for Revelation of the Year, epitomized Quebec cinema’s swing toward young people while Robin Aubert won the Best Supporting Actor prize for the same film. When the Prix Iris nominations were announced, two stand out “films d’ado,” that I liked, Chien de garde and Les faux tatouages (Fake Tattoos), went un-nominated.
While highlighting a new generation in Quebec moviemaking, the gala was haunted by the recent deaths of two major figures: writer-director Jean Beaudin and cinematographer-director, Jean-Claude Labrecque, both of whom like Denys Arcand, launched their careers at the National Film Board of Canada.
In the 1970s, Beaudin was one of the moviemakers who transitioned Quebec filmmaking from a doc-style, rough-around-the-edges aesthetic toward more polished storytelling. His lyrical, visually sumptuous J. A. Martin, photographe competed at Cannes 1977 winning the Ecumenical Jury Prize and a Best Actress award for Monique Mercure.
While directing other prestige features like Mario and Le matou, both literary adaptations, Beaudin plunged into television work, once frowned upon in the film community. In fact, he made Le Matou, based on Yves Beauchemin’s Dickensian novel, as both a theatrical release and a mini-series. Several 1980s projects, inspired by Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander, doubled up this way as a funding strategy I once wrote about (The Minee-Feechie Experiment – Cinema Canada).
Beaudin’s adaptation of René-Daniel Dubois’s incendiary play Being at Home with Claude was his shot at something wild, but the attempt to open up the tense, one set play misfired. As for TV, his series Les filles de Caleb (1990-1991) drew four million viewers per week. A genial man who valued good taste and artistic commitment, Beaudin was granted the Governor General’s Lifetime Artistic Achievement Award in 2017.
Beaudin’s contemporary, Jean-Claude Labrecque, was a key creative force behind the 1960’s surge in Quebec moviemaking, and he continued working until his death. Known primarily as a cinematographer, he filmed landmark pictures like Claude Jutra’s A tout prendre (1963), Gilles Groulx’s Le Chat dans le sac (1964), Gilles Carle’s La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z. (1965), Don Owen’s The Ernie Game (1967), and years later Alanis Obomsawin’s Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance (1993). Incidentally, Obomsawin got a standing ovation when she announced the Best Director Iris at the Quebec Cinema Gala.
When I interviewed Labrecque several years ago, he told me about his love for the NFB, which he called “an extraordinary place, a great school.” He was one of the filmmakers who pushed the Board toward the Cinéma vérité use of lightweight 16mm cameras and high-speed film. “We forced the laboratory to develop Plus X at 400 ASA,” he said. “That made it possible to shoot a bit more in natural light.”
Following Labrecque’s 1965 directorial debut, 60 Cycles, a short that experimented with an ultra telephoto 1000mm lens that NASA had passed on to the NFB, Labrecque made the provocative fact-based dramas L’Affaire Coffin (1979) and Les Années de rève (1983). The 2003 doc À Hauteur d’homme portrayed the Quebec sovereignist filmmaker’s take on onetime premier Bernard Landry’s failed attempt to get the Parti Québécois re-elected.
Another groundbreaking cinematographer, Pierre Mignot, was this year’s recipient of the Iris Hommage for his body of work (over 130 movies) and influence. Another alumnus of the NFB, Mignot shot Beaudin’s J. A. Martin, photographe and pictures by a who’s who of filmmakers including Denys Arcand, Louis Bélanger, Gilles Carle, Robert Lepage, André Melançon and Léa Pool. Mignot filmed Jean-Marc Vallée’s brilliant C.R.A.Z.Y., the picture that catapulted the director into his hot American career now building steam with the HBO hit Big Little Lies.
In Cannes, J. A. Martin, photographe caught the eye of Robert Altman, and Mignot became one of the maverick director’s favourite shooters. Among other pictures he filmed Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982), Fool for Love (1985) and Prêt-à-porter (1994), which featured Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, among many other stars. “Altman treated me like a son,” Mignot told an interviewer, pointing out that the moviemaker favoured an improvisatory, documentary-style approach that was in the cameraman’s blood.
Hot on the heels of Monia Chokri’s sojourn in Cannes, where her directorial debut La femme de mon frère won the Coup de coeur award in the Un certain regard sidebar, the actress-filmmaker showed up at the Quebec Cinema Gala with the movie’s lead, Anne-Élisabeth Bossé. Nine years ago, the two acted together in Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires (Heartbeats) and accompanied him to the festival. Chokri has not only performed in Heartbeats and Dolan’s Laurence Anyways (2012), the moviemaker has been a friend and inspiration to her. He cheered on Chokri at her Cannes screening where, like one of his characters, she dressed stylish and sexy in a wispy thigh-revealing, black see-through with black shorts.
“I learned how to direct actors from him,” Chokri told The Montreal Gazette. “He directs while the camera is rolling. I really liked that; it maintains the momentum. When you say ‘Cut,’ the actors’ energy dips.”
Like a Dolan picture, La femme de mon frère is a brew of comedy and searing emotion triggered by off-kilter relationships. The main character Sophia (Bossé), already pissed off that her PhD has put her into huge debt and might never pay off, goes ballistic when her cherished brother Karim (Patrick Hivon) hones in on a new girlfriend (Evelyne Brochu). Like Dolan, Chokri careens around hot and funny situations with an eye for pop décor and colour coding, not to mention an ear for caustic, rapid-fire dialogue. Reviews were generally positive for the movie, which is set in a multi-ethnic Montreal, and had its Quebec opening in early June. Lisa Nesselson wrote in Screen Daily, “The comedy of unease is overlong but earnest and energetic, marking Chokri as a talent to continue watching.”
Apart from supporting his friend Monia Chokri, Xavier Dolan screened his sixth entry in the Cannes competition. After his elaborate, star-studded English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, which has yet to be released in North America Dolan’s Matthias & Maxime is Quebec-set and modest in scale and style.
The film’s eponymous protagonists, one of them played by Dolan himself in his first self-written role since Tom at the Farm (2013), are buddies who get all shook up when they get a sex tingle after being told to kiss each other for a short film. The audience at the Cannes screening bestowed a long standing ovation on the beaming moviemaker. But while most critics thought Matthias & Maxime held their attention, few raved about it. For one thing, other pictures like Alfonso Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien and Lynn Shelton’s Humpday have already explored the OMG, Are We Gay? Theme.
According to Jon Frosch of The Hollywood Reporter, Dolan normally “employs baroque visual flourishes and musical cues to conjure the turbulent inner worlds of his characters. Here, his approach is lower-key and more straightforward, with a muted palette and the handheld camera keeping close tabs on the leads.” However, the film “never brings the emotional turmoil of these two young men to persuasive life.”
Dolan told Brian Johnson of Maclean’s that he sees Matthias and Maxime “as a transition to a more ‘restrained’ kind of filmmaking. ‘I don’t want to spend my whole life filming people who fight in the kitchen,’ he added, only half-jokingly.” He is contemplating diving into genre, perhaps thinking of fellow Quebecers Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve, and Philippe Falardeau, who was recently shooting the set in New York My Salinger Year in Montreal’s NDG district.
Featuring Sigourney Weaver and Margaret Qualley, the project is an adaptation of Joanna Rakoff’s bestseller about a young woman who gets a literary agency job dealing with the deluge of fan mail, some of it possibly threatening, that flooded in for the mythically reclusive author of Catcher in the Rye. After all, one of his fans shot Ronald Reagan while another succeeded in murdering John Lennon. Luc Déry and Kim McCraw’s company micro_scope is producing the film. The duo was responsible for Denis Villeneuve’s award-winning, career-making Incendies, as well as Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar, an Oscar nominee in 2012.
While their names were mentioned at the Quebec Cinema Gala, Dolan, Falardeau, and Vallée did not attend the event. Other high profile winners were Debbie Lynch-White, Best Actress in La Bolduc, the popular bio of the legendary Quebec singer; best actor Martin Dubreuil for his role in À tous ceux qui ne me lisent pas; best screenplay by Guillaume Corbeil and Yan Giroux for the same film; Kevin Bacon Hervieux, for the Best Documentary, Innu Nikamu: chanter la résistanc; and Sara Mishara, who won the Best Cinematography Iris for La grande noirceur. Signalling generational continuity, Pierre Mignot announced the winner.
When summer starts rolling, so does film festival season. From 1977, and for many years, The Montreal World Film Festival (Le Festival des Films du Monde) was a top international event. It still is the only competitive film festival in North America accredited by the FIAPF (International Federation of Film Producers Associations). What caused its downward spiral while The Toronto International Film Festival skyrocketed? The story is a complex one that has been well documented, and there is no single explanation for it.
For several years, the festival has been rescued from total collapse by last minute interventions. But since the funding agencies and other support sources cut off cash flow, the MFFF has operated on a frayed shoestring, attracting dwindling audiences and suffering numerous embarrassments.
Despite it all, festival founder and president Serge Losique insists every year that his festival will happen, and up until 2018, some kind of event did start up in its late August slot. Submissions to the MWFF poured in. Contrary to many assumptions, many of them, I can say as a sometime programmer, were solid, compelling films.
But at this point, the fate of the 43rd festival is a question mark. An industry veteran told me there was zero chance the festival would return, and as I write, the official website shows zero information about 2019. Not surprisingly, Losique is not ruling out a 43rd, and says he will have an announcement at the end of June.
Meanwhile, the President of the MWFF recently published a long screed tracing Quebec’s struggle for identity in the “Anglo-Saxon ocean of North America.” In the context of a highly controversial new “Secularism” law that bans public employees with authority from wearing religious symbols like hijabs and yarmulkes, Losique defends the bill, arguing that charges of racism and xenophobia against Quebec hold no water.
One common complaint about Serge Losique is that he ran the MWFF in an autocratic and even Napoleonic manner. The Festival du nouveau cinéma (FNC), long thought of as hip and democratic was long considered the antithesis of Losique’s festival. A few years ago, I got an inkling something might be amiss when an ex-employee of the MWFF told me things weren’t so much better at the FNC.
Recently, an incendiary Montreal Gazette article painted a scary picture of the fest’s Executive Director, Nicolas Girard Deltruc. Chief among the complainers was FNC co-founder, and irreverent, jesting public face of the event, Claude Chamberlan, who retired in 2017. He told the newspaper, “It’s been six or seven years of fighting” and spoke of a “culture of intimidation.” Moreover key figures have walked: co-director of programming Philippe Gajan after 20 years, features programmer and programming co-ordinator Sarah El Ouazzani and Dimitri Eipides who co-launched the festival.
Chamberlan and others point to a 2017 incident when Deltruc allegedly insulted guest Vanessa Redgrave because she refused to appear in a photograph with him. Naturally, Deltruc denies all the allegations, including stinginess about programmers’ movie seeking travel. He also says Chamberlan is “out of touch.” Chamberlan has complained bitterly that after he went public with critiques, his FNC email account was deactivated.
Deltruc has supporters who defend him. According to a trustworthy source, good people on both sides of the FNC crisis either confirm or deny the reports. Supported by Telefilm Canada, the Canada Council for the Arts, Tourism Montreal, the City of Montreal, the Conseil des Arts de Montréal, not to mention the governments of Quebec and Canada, the 48th edition of the FNC, Canada’s longest running film festival featuring international feature films, is slated for October.
In the midst of film festival drama, you never hear about turbulence at the summertime Fantasia International Film Festival. Of course the workload is considerable for an event that runs for almost three weeks – the 23rd edition will sell out theatres and attract supercharged fans from July 11 to August 1.
Fantasia, under the co-direction of the event’s high profile presence Mitch Davis, who also handles the international selection, the genre festival screens everything from obscure Polish horror films to American studio releases. Quentin Tarantino, like Eli Roth and many other moviemakers and actors venerate the festival. You can feel the affection between audiences and Davis, as well as other film presenters. Guests like the late Ken Russell and Larry Cohen, who recently passed away, are honoured with such genuine love, they experience a depth of respect that they always say is unique. Not to mention the knowledgeable audience questions, and the fun they have in Montreal with festival staffers, some of whom are close friends, not prone to bickering or backstabbing.
Highlights that have already been announced include Abe Forsythe’s Little Monsters, which stars the brilliant and extraordinarily beautiful Lupita Nyong’o (Twelve Years a Slave, Us). Anticipation will also be high for the Korean thriller, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, which in May, played Cannes. According to Maclean’s Brian Johnson, that fest is starting to feel like a genre event. Over 23 years, Fantasia has made waves.
This summer, Davis is particularly stoked that singer-composer Paul Williams will appear at Fantasia’s 45th Anniversary screening of Brian De Palma’s delirious horror musical, Phantom of the Paradise. The festival will be honouring the movie’s producer, Edward R. Pressman, noted for bold pictures like Wall Street and American Psycho, directed by Canadian Mary Harron I should say since this is Northernstars.ca.
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.