for Tribune: Québec, Mon Amour

Published on: July 25th, 2016

Montreal, with the Biosphere in the foreground

Critics who attend a lot of film-festivals are frequently asked which country’s cinema is the most vibrant or worthwhile —South Korea, Romania, Argentina and Greece have all enjoyed their spells of favour and fashion in the past 20 years. But as the importance of the nation-state steadily diminishes in the 21st century, it’s increasingly the case that the answers will involve regions as much as they will sovereign entities—with Canada’s primarily Francophone, overwhelmingly Catholic province of Québec arguably the current prime example.

A full decade ago, in his preface to the 2006 essay-collection The Cinema of Canada, Jerry White wrote that “it is often remarked informally that if Canada has a ‘real’ cinema, then it is clearly in Quebec. This sometimes comes as a shock to anglophone observers… who all too often assume that of course the real action must be in English. This is not the case in Canada.” Less than two years before, Denys Arcand had—with The Barbarian Invasions—become the first Québécois director to win the ‘Foreign Language’ Oscar, having previously found international success with The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989).

Spool forward to spring 2016, and while Arcand may have unexpectedly fallen into relative obscurity, Québécois cinema and the province’s directors are higher-profile than ever. Barely 27, Montréal’s Xavier Dolan was the surprise (some observers would say “shock”) winner of this year’s Grand Prix at Cannes for It’s Only the End of the World; Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) is in pre-production on a sequel to Blade Runner; Jean-Marc Vallée (still best known at home for his 2005 box-office crackerjack C.R.A.Z.Y.) has likewise “gone Hollywood” with The Dallas Buyers Club, Wild and Demolition.

On the festival circuit, meanwhile, significant success has been enjoyed by the likes of Denis Côté (Vic and Flo Saw a Bear), Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar), Philippe Lesage (The Demons) and Stéphane Lafleur (Tu dors Nicole), while Alexandre Larose’s ten-minute Brouillard–Passage #14 (2014) ranks as one of the high-water marks of 21st-century experimental cinema.

Pretty good going for a province which, while geographically bigger than the EU’s three biggest countries combined (France, Spain and Sweden), has a population of just 8 million—roughly half of that perennial cinematic also-ran, The Netherlands. I maintain a frequently-updated annual Top 10 feature-length films on my website Jigsaw Lounge (www.jigsawlounge.co.uk) and in September 2013 was startled to note that four of the ten were by Québécois directors: Dolan (Tom at the Farm), Villeneuve (Prisoners), Côté (Vic and Flo) and Frédéric Pelletier, whose Loach-flavoured Diego Star is a fine example of the socially-conscious grit for which Québécois cinema has long been noted—especially in the documentary sphere.

It’s a tradition which was exhaustively celebrated this May at the long-running Manhattan rep-cinema Anthology Film Archives (AFA) via a 12-day, 17-programme series under the title Québec Direct Cinema. “A host of filmmakers,” as Anthology’s notes noted, “developed and utilized new camera and sound technologies to make documentary films whose spontaneity, vitality and formal innovations are still remarkable… These filmmakers used the new technologies to throw themselves into the worlds they documented, and to respond in the moment to the rhythms and textures of lived experience.”

I’d called in for two nights in Montréal on my way to New York, and been impressed by the laid-back, bohemian-tinged sophistications of an historic city whose “bigness and rawness and brawniness” so impressed Jan Morris, whose Anglophone exports include Leonard Cohen, Oscar Peterson, William Shatner and Arcade Fire—and which been the home of Canada’s National Film Board since 1956.

The Anthology programme went back two years earlier than that, spanning the years 1954-1982, with 35 archival titles of varying durations (nine feature-length), and boasting an admirable commitment to celluloid (22) over digital (13) projections.  A handful of fiction titles were slotted in among the documentaries, such as Between Salt and Sweet Water (1967)—by the film-maker most prolifically represented in the AFA series, Michel Brault (1928-2013). Writer-director and sometime cinematographer Brault was part of a particularly rich generation of Québécois cinema alongside Pierre Perrault (1927-99), Gilles Carle (1928-2009), Claude Jutra (1930-86), Gilles Groulx (1931-94) and Bernard Gosselin (1935-2007), all of whom were duly represented in the AFA season.

Their most productive periods in the sixties and early seventies coincided with a potent reawakening of Québécois identity and the stirring of separatist sentiments, bolstered by the success of the 1967 Montréal Expo, and garnering international attention during the ‘October Crisis’ of 1970—the mood was somewhat calmer by the time Montréal hosted what would be an infamously costly Olympic Games in 1976.

Sweety

The issue of Québécois independence was far from settled, it’s topical to note, by referenda on the issue in 1980 and 1994, the latter yielding a 50.6% vote for the status quo. Separatist currents are crucially present as intermittent background noise in Between Salt and Sweet Waterco-written by Arcand, shot in high-contrast monochrome by Brault, Gosselin and Jean-Claude Labrecque, and providing a prominent supporting role for the elfin, gamine 25-year-old who went on to become the most internationally recognised and acclaimed of Québécois performers, Geneviève Bujold (Coma, Dead Ringers, Anne of the Thousand Days, etc.)

An obvious but ideal double-bill partner for the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, Between Sweet and Salt Water was initially released with the irresistible tagline “un film bien de chez nous” (a ‘down-home film’). It stars real-life folk star Claude Gauthier as a lightly-fictionalised version of himself—he wrote the songs he performs in the film—chronicling how he laboured in variety of menial jobs while awaiting his big break. These interludes are notable for their documentary-style authenticity, capturing Montréal in the period just before the Expo accelerated its emergence as one of the most stimulating and worthwhile cities on the entire north American continent—a breezy, earthy metropolis whose artists seldom have any aversion to getting their hands dirty.

Neil Young
June 19th 2016
online July 25th
for Tribune magazine