Monday, September 3, 2007

An Anglophone's Case Against Québécois Cinema

In the current issue of Cineaste, there's an article by Matthew Hays, titled "Bon Cop, Bad Cop [2006] and Canada's Two Solitudes," about the (relative) commercial success of Québécois cinema on its home turf, that while impressively researched and thoroughly readable, strikes one as myopic in its overall emphasis on box office returns (it's impossible not to think of Pauline Kael). Hays seems to dismiss Bon Cop, Bad Cop at the top of the article as "fromage," but nevertheless concludes by writing:

"Those behind Bon Cop, Bad Cop concede a sequel has been discussed. Perhaps next time around some of that elusive success can seep across the Québec border into the ROC [rest of Canada]. And all of Canada, not just one province, can enjoy the kind of robust, invigorating, popular cinema that Québec enjoys."

For the record, I found Bon Cop, Bad Cop unspeakably depressing--far from "invigorating"--but then I'm the guy looking for symbolism in Arrested Development re-runs, and thus have an innate resistance to the idea that any film, let alone one so nasty and unpleasant, "could be fun if you just make sure not to take any of it very seriously" (yes, this sentence was published in a magazine named Cineaste, which calls itself "America's leading magazine on the art and politics of the cinema"). And while I quite enjoyed Philippe Falardeau's Congorama (2006)--the best Canadain movie I saw last year overall (of nine) (1); Hays doesn't mention it--judging by the article, Québécois cinema is "robust" only insofar as people are going to see it, regardless of quality. As an example of the kind of good news the Québec film industry recieves on a near-weekly basis, Hays cites the box office success of Nitro (2007), a transparent knock-off of The Fast and the Furious (2000) (2), which in its opening weekend out-performed Hollywood blockbusters like Live Free or Die Hard and Ratatouille (both 2007).

While the article doesn't contain any information about Hays himself, including whether or not he's Québécois, his gloating over the moribund state of English-Canadian cinema (he makes the outrageous claim that Anglophone filmmakers are too wrapped up in self pity to appeal to broad national sentiments) seems indicative of an age-old rivalry between English and French Canada that does more to maintain the two solitudes than bring them together. What I find most dubious about the article is the underlying assumption that Canadian cinema should speak to a popular (provincial) Canadian audience rather than an international (cosmopolitan) auidence including Canadians. Peter Greenaway, the greatest of all British filmmakers (now based in Holland), likes to quote Gore Vidal's statement that only two hundred people in America read books: "You have to begin with that hard core of deeply engaged, deeply intrigued individuals." Not surprisingly, the best American directors, from Orson Welles to Nicholas Ray to Jim Jarmusch, tend to be more respected in Europe than at home; and while a friend of mine from China is just as crazy about the films of Jia Zhang-ke as I am, he's the exception rather than the rule (given Jia's long-take aesthetic, one imagines his work wouldn't fit comfortably in the mainstream anywhere on earth).

Among active Canadian directors, only five have international reputations, and while I wouldn't hesistate to say that David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan and Guy Maddin are all world class filmmakers (that is, on par with the best of world cinema: Assayas, Haneke, Hou et al), and the one film I've seen by Michael Snow--Wavelength (1967), naturally (3)--is a masterpiece, Denys Arcand (whose work I don't know especially well) strikes me as a competent but unremarkable middlebrow entertainer. His Les Invasions barbares (2003) made me cry when I first encountered it at the Altantic film festival, in a packed theater that errupted into applause the second the film ended, but seeing it again the following summer while in Toronto, in a small second-run theater with only a handful of other people, I found it far less impressive. Compared with the other films that premiered at Cannes that year--including The Brown Bunny, Crimson Gold, Distant, Dogville, Elephant, Le Temps du loup and Young Adam, which only grow in resonance on second and third viewing--Arcand's clearly doesn't measure up.

If I had to pick my favorite Québécois film, it'd be an easy choice: Jean-Claude Lauzon's Léolo (1992) is one of those great films like The Night of the Hunter (1955) and Woman in the Dunes (1964) that seem to come completely out of left field and frighten away imitators. If one can spot the influence of other filmmakers on Lauzon's masterpiece, they're international rather than domestic (critics have cited Federico Fellini and François Truffaut) and so thoroughly assimilated that the film feels like the work of a director making his tenth feature rather than his second. (4) Less impressive though still worthy of mention are the first two features by the vastly underrated Denis Villenueve, Un 32 août sur terre (1998) and Maelström (2000), both loopy and unpredictable narratives about young women dealing with pregnancy. Ideally, Villeneuve should've found an international following and directed three more features by now; instead, what happened? Apparently nothing, apart from a two-minute short made with a cell phone. The Québec film industry, so good at marketing schlock to a domestic audience, seems incapable of either recognizing a major talent when they have one or selling them to an audience outside Québec. I rest my case again Québec's robust, invigorating, popular cinema.

1. The other seven were Monkey Warfare (which I might recommend for the performances by Don McKellar and Tracy Wright, even though the film falls apart completely in the final stretch), three I walked out on--Black Eyed Dog, Delivrez-moi, Tales of the Rat Fink--and three more I should've walked out on: The Journals of Knud Rasmussen, Snow Cake and Un dimanche à Kigali. After an acquaintance, to whom I recommended Congorama, reported back to me that it was just "arlight," I had to reconsider my enthusiasm for the film; I realized that I was probably overrating it because it was Canadian, and therefore went in with lowered expectations. I suspect if the film were made in France or Belgium, I wouldn't have been nearly as impressed.
2. I haven't seen Nitro, so I'm basing this statement on the advertising campaign.
3. Some critics have argued that if Snow had used a loft in Toronto or Montréal rather than New York, the film wouldn't have had nearly so large an impact.
4. Lauzon's first feature, Night Zoo (1987), while unsuccessful and far less interesting, is not an experience I'll ever forget--particularly, the film's final scene in which the hero and his father break into a Montréal zoo in the middle of the night to hunt elephants. After Léolo, Lauzon retired from filmmaking; he died five years later in a plane crash.


  1. Unfortunately I'm not particularly well versed in Canadian or Quebec cinema (more-so than most I suppose) despite being a Montrealer. I honestly have to conceed to you that the Quebec industry is being measured more on a level of financial success than qualitative, but even that is misleading. Last year for example, I can off the top of my head count three Quebec films released under mass marketing campaigns including some rather notable stars (one even had Jeanne Moreau I think...) and they were both critically panned and did terribly at the box office. Then again, for awhile Un Homme et son peche was one of the all time Quebec grossers... a good adaptation (I suppose) of a very popular, albeit rather terrible novel. I have yet to see a film from here that has blown me away (I haven't seen Leolo). I remember saying you weren't interesting in seeing C.R.A.Z.Y., it's an average film, but nothing spectacular and that's a feeling I consistently get when I see critical darlings of the Quebec dream industry.

    As you mention though, there are definetely some notable Canadian/Quebec talents working today. I'd add Francois Girard, on reputation only (I haven't seen The Red Violin) who directs Silk which looks somewhat promising (I'm hoping it's good).Also this year, Arcand's releasing a new film and the trailer is intriguing. I'll probably be seeing that. I think Shake Hands with the Devil is also being released, I'd see it for Dupuis.

    I REALLY need to see some Madden, and more Egoyan.

  2. Speaking of not being blown away, I can't say I've ever been really impressed with Jeanne Moreau--but that's another story.

    Anyway, I wouldn't feel guilty about not being versed in Canadian cinema, because you only need to know the basics: Norman McLaren, Michael Snow, David Cronenberg from Videodrome-on (his early films are atrocious), Atom Egoyan (I'm especially fond of Next of Kin, Speaking Parts and Exotica, but I like all his films), Léolo, the recent films of Guy Maddin (I'm less fond of his early work, though Careful is growing on me and I need to take another look at Archangel), Last Night, Villeneuve, and Gary Burns. Everything else sucks.

    I still haven't seen C.R.A.Z.Y. I may have mentioned this before, but I remember reading the blurb for it in a festival guide, which was basically a 200-word "wink-wink, nudge-nudge" on the gayness issue--nothing explicit, just veiled referrences to the protagonist being "different" and liking David Bowie. A couple years ago there was a backlash against Brokeback Mountain because straight critics didn't think it was gay enough; next to C.R.A.Z.Y., it must look like Bruce LaBruce.

    I haven't seen Girard's The Red Violin since it first came out; I liked it at the time, but that was so long ago I wouldn't take my word on it. I still haven't seen 32 Short Films About Glen Gould, and Silk is playing here the same night as the new Nicolas Roeg film so to hell with that. I actually haven't heard too much about the new Arcand film, even though it was the closing film at Cannes this year, though I think it's getting a release later this year. I suppose I should get around to seeing Jésus de Montréal one of these days, even though a friend of mine hated it, in addition to sort of spoiling the ending for me.

    I could probably sneak into the press screening for Shake Hands With the Devil, but I don't really feel like it. Dupuis is kind of like the Canadian Gerard Depardieu, except Depardieu used to be okay (Loulou, Mon oncle d'Amerique, and just recently Téchiné's Les Temps qui changent). I did a six-week French emersion thing in Québec this summer (which is where I saw Bon Cop, Bad Cop--I didn't persue it) and they showed us Maurice Richard... man, what a bad movie.

  3. I love Moreau! Nobody's perfect I suppose :p

    Well, I'm good with McLaren, the others I need to check out still. I unfortunately missed Exotica playing earlier this week on commercial free television, I'll have to rent it.

    I remember that comment precisely, which is why I assumed you hadn't seen it. In the film's defence, the main character is not very quick at accepting his own homosexuality, but it is nonetheless sugar coated. I would be surprised if you enjoyed it at all.

    I've always liked Dupuis despite him never having great material. I'll agree that the Rocket was pretty bad, but I thought he did a fairly good job considering the circomstances and the fact he is way too old for the part.

    I just noticed in your footnotes you actually saw Kigali, I personally haven't but I unfortunately read the book. It's pretty terrible honestly, and the only good part that actually added ambiguity and interest was apparently changed for the film.

  4. I don't want to make it sound like I'm avoiding C.R.A.Z.Y. because it's not gay enough when it seems to me that sugar-coating the issue is purely a commercial consideration.

    Consider João Pedro Rodrigues' brilliant Odete, which premiered at Cannes in the Quinzane des réalisateurs only a few months before C.R.A.Z.Y. premiered at Toronto; for its American release, it was retitled Two Drifters and marketed as a gay special interest film--seemingly the only way such a challenging film could even get a US release of any kind. If Rodrigues' film is advanced reading for only the most discerning of cinephiles (the sort of person who's going to notice/care that the original title is a duel homage to Dreyer and Bresson), C.R.A.Z.Y. is No Viewer Left Behind: homophobia is definitely bad, and liberal viewers can feel flattered for knowing this long before they walked into the theater without having to be made uncomfortable by (God forbid!) the sight of two men kissing (hey, whatever they want to do behind closed doors is their business--just don't rub it in my face).

    And I don't buy the rationalization that because the character is hesistant to accept his sexuality that the film has to stay in the closet with him; Jack and Ennis weren't exactly quick to embrace a gay lifestyle, yet Brokeback Mountain at least had the balls to show them having sex in the first forty minutes. And this is a mainstream, year-end Hollywood release. What's the point of even watching Canadian cinema when mainstream Hollywood presents more of a challenge to the status quo?