Shock and Awe: Québec Film in 2021
by Maurie Alioff
(January 13, 2022 – Montréal, QC) The bolt from the blue that ended Québec film 2021 still has people reeling. Jean-Marc Vallée died on Christmas day, awaiting guests at his chalet in beautiful Berthier-sur-Mer, near Québec City. Vallée’s death came with the brutal suddenness of events in his last production, Sharp Objects, the eight part series based on Gillian (Gone Girl) Flynn’s 2006 novel. The series also typified the director-writer-producer’s acute visual sensibility, mastery over sound, music, and atmosphere, not to mention mesmerizing fusion of the traumatic past to the disturbing present. A film about John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s love story was in the works.
The loss of Vallée, which continues to rock everyone who knew and loved him in the film industry and beyond, resulted from a heart attack. But there has been speculation that the fit, non-drinking Vallée may have triggered the crisis by practicing Dutch guru Wim Hof’s extreme breathing techniques. The Hof method, perhaps derived from practices like yoga “fire breathing,” involves rhythmic inhaling and exhaling, while holding breath for several minutes, preferably in frigid temperatures. Pictures of Hof show him meditating in a loin cloth with what looks like a glacier in the background. An advocate of icy showers that The “Iceman” says have multiple benefits, Hof has publicly derided the idea that his breathing system could have triggered Vallée’s cardiac arrest.
I enjoyed several interview meetings with Vallée on the releases of Liste Noire, the 1995 Québec film that launched his career, 2005’s C.R.A.Z.Y., his stunning picture about disruptive, high flying adolescence, and Café de Flore, a probing examination of love. It doesn’t surprise me that he would have been following transcendental practices like Hof’s. His distinct form of spirituality, which included so-called popular culture was obvious.
In a magazine interview piece, I recounted how in a sunny Toronto Hotel restaurant, Vallée’s “blue eyes lifted skyward when he told me, ‘The rock songs I picked for Zac are like prayers. Shine on You Crazy Diamond — when it starts with the organ, and the synthesizer and before the guitar comes in—sounds like divine intervention is coming soon.’”
Producer of C.R.A.Z.Y., Pierre Evan, Entertainment journalist Brendan Kelly, and playwright Steve Gallucio (Mambo Italiano) all paid tribute to Vallée through their various memories of him. Gallucio once told Vallée that C.R.A.Z.Y. “was the best movie I have ever seen, and he answered: ‘the best Québécois movie?’ And I said no – “the best movie ever.”
Of all the tributes I’ve seen the most eloquent came from colleague Denis Villeneuve in The Hollywood Reporter. Villeneuve, who like Vallée found fame and creative satisfaction in the U.S., wrote: “Jean-Marc loved humanity where it hurts, focusing on that hidden inner focal point of pain, shame and sorrows. He embraced our wounds, our weaknesses, our darkest sides, without judgment, but with infinite empathy. He loved humanity, not looking for its redemption nor evolution but embracing its condition. More specifically, he was deeply moved by the tortured soul, the dropout, the marginalized. The ones bearing the cross of being different in societies where being different is still a plague. His cinema was born out of pure, raw, gold humanity.” All more than true of his last show, Sharp Objects, the series Big Little Lies, and theatrical features like The Dallas Buyers’ Club and Wild.
The year’s other big loss was the August death of producer Rock Demers, whose Tales for All Series of children’s films continue to charm audiences around the world. Demers, a gentlemanly man with a sharp wit, pioneered production, packaging, marketing, and distribution techniques. Canadian filmmakers, who loved him and were inspired by him, continue feeling his absence.
Amidst the losses, Québec filmmakers also had plenty to celebrate.
Denis Villeneuve’s latest US production, and his ultimate dream project since he fell under the spell of Frank Herbert’s novels as a teenager, Dune yanked in $400 million US by the end of the year. At this point, Part Two has been greenlit and the epic picture has a shot at Oscar nominations. The chances would have been enhanced if Dune had picked up more than one of this year’s Golden Globe awards. Hans Zimmer won for best score.
For sure, another likely Oscar contender with a Québec connection is Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, which took three Golden Globes, including Best Picture Motion Picture, Director, and Supporting Actor. That rumble you hear is the Oscar momentum many observers believe will carry the film to multiple prizes.
The Québec link to The Power of the Dog is producer Roger Frappier and his company, Max Films. Frappier has been making wise decisions since the 1980’s and 1990’s when he was instrumental in re-inventing Québec cinema. In this case, Frappier optioned the film rights to Thomas Savage’s 1967 novel about explosive, often hidden emotions on a Montana ranch, and kept them up his sleeve for four years. “After 40-plus years of working on productions, this was a real gift,” Frappier told a reporter.
In an interview with Radio Canada’s Pénélope McQuade (billed as Pénélope), Frappier explained he discovered the book in a Paris hotel room where he read a magazine article featuring recommendations from Gérard Depardieu that included Savage’s novel. If the hotel hadn’t provided the mag, it’s possible Frappier would have been clueless about The Power of the Dog. He immediately sought out the novel in Paris bookstores, read it, and was impressed by Savage’s four principal characters and opportunities for actors.
The discovery was followed by a long period of uncertainties about the rights, back and forths, and negotiations until finally the magical moment when as the producer with the rights, he met Jane Campion in Cannes. “We talked cinema,” Frappier said, not business. “Let’s do it,” she said. Incidentally, Campion heard about the story from her mother-in-law. High profile ventures sometimes come together by sheer kismet.
Frappier recounted with a close awareness details of casting, research into the story’s ranch environment, Netflix’s financial involvement, and Pandemic delays. As for major creative decisions, he praised Campion for how she “integrates the environment into the character” and her sensitivity to “cinema,” not just filmmaking, which many lesser directors can accomplish.
Like Denis Villeneuve, who Frappier produced, he had an opening to Hollywood when Robert Altman, during the Nashville shoot, encouraged him to stay in the U.S. Frappier is happy he decided to return to Québec where his output has been prolific, he backed emerging talent, and contributed to the evolution of the art and industry. For years, he has argued that government should invest more in film for creative and economic reasons. At the moment, he’s looking forward to Oscar night on March 27, for the outcomes on The Power of the Dog and Dune.
Another possible Oscar contender, Ivan Grbovic’s Les oiseaux ivres (Drunken Birds) became Canada’s choice to vie for the best International Feature Academy Award. Written by Grbovic and his partner ace DP Sara Mishara, the movie tells the story of a Mexican drug runner who takes off for Montreal in search of his lover, who he thinks is on the run from her powerful husband. The twist comes when the runner gets a job as a migrant worker on a Québécois farm where complications, including an attraction to the farmer’s daughter, arise.
Other 2021 Quebec highlighs were Philippe Falardeau’s lukewarm My Salinger Year, which launched 2020’s Berlin International Film Festival before its delayed release; Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette’s no-holds-barred view of teen life and sexuality, La Déesse des mouches à feu (Goddess of the Fireflies); Mohawk filmmaker Tracey Deer’s Beans, her tense, provocative first feature and personalized view of the 1990 Oka Crisis. The picture got released in July while La Déesse des mouches à feu pleased audiences when it opened in 2020, got shut out and reopened in 2021.
Beans scored best picture and best first feature at May’s Canadian Screen Awards. Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby did even better with his native zombie picture Blood Quantum. Meanwhile, Sébastien Pilote’s exquisite period piece Maria Chapdelaine, and latest adaptation of Louis Hémon’s novel, took in $1 million at the box office last fall.
In television land, culture writer Erin McLeod pointed out in a Globe and Mail article that the normalization of subtitles on streaming services will have an impact on Quebec TV shows. “Could this be a watershed moment for homegrown Québécois series,” she asked. “Offerings are beyond varied: from the innovative time-travel drama Plan B to the zeitgeist-skewering sketch comedy series Like-Moi! and Québec’s addictive version of the reality confection Come Dine with Me, entitled Un souper presque parfait. But while these series receive rave reviews in their home province, they exist in French and French only: no subtitles or English dubs are on offer.”
However, “luckily, some of the best shows are slowly becoming available for English audiences. M’entends tu? (Can You Hear Me?), is one example. A program about the lives of three girlfriends struggling to get by in Montreal, it’s a critically acclaimed series now available subtitled on Netflix Canada.” Similarly, Way Over Me (Sortez-moi de moi) about a team of crisis intervention specialists with their own problems streams in both a subtitled and dubbed version on Crave. Starring Pascale Bussières, it’s a tough, emotionally volatile, brilliantly produced show.
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. He is the Québec Correspondent for northernstars.ca.