Sunday, December 7, 2008

Quebec Film Week

Do you remember Freedom Toast and Freedom Fries – America's limp-wristed bitchslap at France for refusing to join our Coalition of the Willing? Or how about John Kerry being forced to wear a Scarlet F for his ability to speak fluent French? Well, au revoir and bon débarras to eight years of francophilic xenophobia. It's time to fly our Frenchy freak flags once again.

San Francisco Film Society got the parlez-vous party started back in October with its inaugural French Cinema Now series. On December 10 they bring things closer to home with Quebec Film Week (QFW), a five-day, eight-film mini-fest aimed to coincide with the quadricentennial of Canada's French-speaking province.

"There could be no better time to draw attention to Quebec's singular cinematic tradition. With its own awards ceremony (the
Jutras) and a vital history of regionally specific films portraying universal concerns, the cinema of Quebec offers moviegoers a plethora of riches."

QFW's alluring line-up consists of five recent narrative features, two documentaries and one beloved classic. The latter, of course, is Claude Jutra's 1971 Mon Oncle Antoine. This bittersweet, nostalgic film is set in a snowy 1940's mining town at Christmastime, and its heart lies in a general store run by Antoine and his wife Cecile. The story traces the disillusionment of their adopted nephew Benoit, as he discovers that even the most altruistic of adults are sometimes hiding a seamy side. I recently watched the Criterion DVD and the film holds up well, especially its specific sense of time and place. In one memorable scene, the whole town assembles to watch the general store unveil its holiday display window. In another, the wealthy mine owner rides a sleigh down Main Street, disdainfully tossing cheap holiday trinkets at the children of his workers (until Benoit terrorizes his horses with some well-aimed snowballs). The film's dialogue is heavy with le français québécois, and should send even fluent French speakers scurrying for the subtitles. Mon Oncle Antoine screens just once, at 1:15 p.m. on Sunday, December 14 at Landmark's Opera Plaza Cinema (home for all five days of QFW). If you're in the mood for something seasonal (and have already seen Desplechin's A Christmas Tale), this will be worth your while.

The QFW film with the biggest marquee value is undoubtedly Denys Arcand's The Age of Ignorance (L'âge des ténèbres). The director has made three Oscar-nominated films in the last 20 years (The Decline of the American Empire (Le decline de l'empire Americain), Jesus of Montreal (Jésus de Montréal)¸ The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares)) with the last one winning Best Foreign Language Film in 2003. His latest, a caustic satire set in a dystopian, near-future Montreal, was the Closing Night film at Cannes 2007 as well as Canada's 2007 submission for the Oscars. Unfortunately, it's received uniformly mixed to poor reviews, which explains the subsequent lack of U.S. theatrical or DVD release. Those same reviews, however, claim that the film's first act is brilliant, and have high praise for Marc Labrèche's central performance as a discontented bureaucrat with a licentious fantasy life. I've managed to miss this three times already (and not for lack of desire) at Mill Valley, Palm Springs and the San Rafael Film Center's For Your Consideration series. I'm hoping not to miss it again.

Stéphane Lafleur's debut feature Continental, a Film Without Guns (Continental, un film sans fusil) is the QFW movie I'm most looking forward to. At this year's Jutra Awards, it won four of the eight categories in which it was nominated; including Best Film, Director and Screenplay. It also took the Best Canadian First Feature Film Award at 2007's Toronto Film Festival. The reviews compare it favorably to some interesting directors. Eyeweekly's Adam Nayman says "Lafleur's arresting debut feature…suggests nothing so much as a Quebecois version of Roy Andersson's static, boxed-in comedies of despair." "A sort of cross between Roy Andersson and Tsai Ming-liang," adds Travis Mackenzie Hoover at Exclaim!. And Variety's Ronnie Scheib finds that "Lafleur's pic recalls the upbeat sad-sack ethos of a Kaurismaki film." In other words, a minimalist/miserablist rocking good time. The plot, such as it is, begins when a man awakens on an abandoned bus, wanders off into the woods and disappears. From there it's a series of criss-crossing, deadpan vignettes focused on four interlinked characters.

Nudity and explicit sex have no doubt helped Lyne Charlebois' Borderline become a box-office smash in Quebec. That, and the fact that her source material is two cult classic, semi-autobiographical novels by co-screenwriter Marie-Sissi Labrèche. The film's central character is Kiki, a woman whose anguished story is depicted by way of three overlapping time frames. As a child she's forced to deal with an absent father, an institutionalized mother and an ailing grandmother who's raising her. Age 20 finds her addicted to sex and alcohol and emulating Courtney Love. Then, as a 30-year-old grad student still struggling with demons, she has an affair with her married thesis advisor. Actress Isabelle Blais has received praise for her brave, harrowing performance as Kiki, as has veteran actor Jean-Hugues Anglade (the poor guy in love with nutty Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue) as her lover/professor. According to a capsule for Pacific Cinematheque, Borderline "is a stunner – a compelling, visually striking work (that) tackles themes of familial madness, sexual addiction and problems with burgeoning creativity, seen entirely from a female point of view."

The two remaining narrative features explore themes of childhood vulnerability, albeit from very different perspectives. Léa Pool's Mommy is at the Hairdresser's (Maman est chez le coiffure) is set in a bucolic, semi-rural suburbia of the mid-1960s and takes place over the course of one summer. When an unfulfilled mother takes off for London to advance her career, her three children learn to fend for themselves with little help from their emotionally absent (and most likely gay) father. In contrast, the contemporary setting for Anaïs Barbeau-Lavelette's The Fight (Le ring) is a rough, Montreal neighborhood where a 12-year-old boy lives with his junkie mother, criminal father and downward-spiraling siblings. The bright spots in his life are an obsession with professional wrestling and a friendship with a solicitous homeless man. I watched a screener of Mommy during this year's Mill Valley Film Festival and found it unremarkable overall, save for its sharp period detail and a pair of fine performances. French actor Laurent Lucas, best known for his unsettling, off-kilter characters in such films as Lemming, Calvaire and Who Killed Bambi? (Qui a tué Bambi?), is perfectly cast as the father. Director Pool is known for her attuned direction of children, and Mariane Fortier is a testament to that talent in her role as the eldest sibling. A strong adolescent performance also appears to be at the heart of The Fight. In his review for Variety, Russell Edwards proclaims the film "an authentic social-realist contender that achieves must-see status on the strength of its central perf by Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay."

Rounding out the QFW line-up are two feature documentaries. A recent box-office hit in Canada, Jean Lemire's The Last Continent (Le dernier continent) follows a scientific expedition through one winter in Antarctica. As a result of severe climate change, the arrival of winter now means gale force winds and warmer temperatures that hinder the formation of life-sustaining pack ice. The film's first half is a terrifying white-knuckle ride in which the crew struggles to freeze food supplies, anchor their ship and set up base camp. Once true winter finally sets in, they set out to explore and collect data. Many of these scenes are as awesomely beautiful as anything in Herzog's Encounters at the End of the World. I saw this on DVD and can only imagine how great it'll look on a big screen. The English-language version of The Last Continent to be shown at QFW is narrated by Donald Sutherland.

Finally, we have Sohpie Deraspe's Missing Victor Pellerin (Rechercher Victor Pellerin), a straight-faced meta-mocku-docu-drama-mentary about a former star of the Montreal art world. According to legend, painter Victor Pellerin burned his entire life's work 15 years ago and promptly disappeared off the earth's face. To penetrate his enigma, Deraspe interviews former family, friends and art-world associates, each of whom leaves a conflicting impression of Pellerin. Jeanette Catsoulis of the NY Times calls it "an intellectually engaging puzzle filled with outré characters," and in the Village Voice, Charles Petersen says this is "an uncanny, uncategorizable film (that) seems as interested in creating a sense of wonder as in deflating the pretensions of the contemporary art world." Was the guy real or fake? Only a Google search will tell you for sure.

As has become de rigueur for every
SF Film Society presentation, a number of special guests are expected to attend their QFW screenings, including Marie-Siss Labrèche, co-writer of Borderline; Stéphane Lafleur, director of Continental, A Film Without Guns; Anais Barbeau-Lavalette, director of The Fight; Jean Lemire, director of The Last Continentent; and Sylvain Bouthillette, actor and artist from Missing Victor Pellerin.


Unknown said...

Hi Michael,

Love the name of the site; love the look of the site; don't sweat the superfluous stuff, just keep up the great writing. You were born to do this and few do it as well.


Michael Hawley said...

Thanks for your kind words of encouragement, guys!

Brian Darr said...

Great piece, and glad to see you with your own patch of blog-real-estate, Michael!

Michael Hawley said...

Yep, that darn blogbug finally done bit me. Thanks for dropping by, Brian.

Kirsten said...

Hi Michael,

Thank you for sharing this wonderful write-up! Do you plan to continue the blog? I hope so..

Thanks again,

Michael Hawley said...

Thanks, Kirsten. It was a real pleasure to meet and hang out with you between QFW movies last night.