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Series “New Wave North” awakens us to the national uniqueness of Québec In 1981, Québec film maker Denys Arcand made Le confort et l’indifférence (Comfort and Indifference), a French-language documentary on the 1980 referendum on national sovereignty. The movie showed everything from the patriotic speechifying of Canada’s current Prime Minister, Jean Chrétien, to a guy at a conversion van show displaying his vehicle’s slick-shaggy interior. Immigrants who couldn’t speak French explained why they were voting oui for Québec sovereignty. Older people identified themselves as French Canadians, while most others used the term Québécois. Real speeches and interviews were interspersed with passages from Machiavelli, implying the complexity of a society that had just voted 60% non to a form of separation from Canada. In 1981 Arcand and his filmmaking compatriots were a little-known quantity outside the province, and Canadian cinema itself was mostly either confined to art houses or not recognizably Canadian as such. This all changed in 1986, with Arcand’s internationally-acclaimed Le déclin de l’empire américain (Decline of the American Empire). This dark glimpse at the sex lives and friendships of a group of Québec intellectuals won nine Genies (the Canadian Oscar) and garnered accolades from Toronto to Cannes and back—among them the New York Film Critics Circle prize for best foreign film. Three years later, Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) found it even easier to hit screens in English-speaking countries and was nominated for both an Oscar and the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Remarkably, the specifically Québécois subject matter had not hindered the appeal of either film among English-speaking audiences willing to read subtitles. Arcand had introduced, at least to Americans amenable to French films, the cinema of Québec. By the time the second referendum on Québec sovereignty rolled around in October 1995, the oui lost by a mere fraction of a percentage point, leaving a society very attuned to reading, writing and filming itself as distinct from the rest of the country. By the mid-1990s, Québec film, like the other arts, had become as national as half the population hoped its own government would soon be. In Québec cinema today, this sensibility has moved way beyond simple politics. The Wisconsin Film Festival series “New Wave North” film awakens us to the national uniqueness of Québec, a Frenchspeaking society where creativity itself seems to result from the ability to shift gears. And these films root us squarely on this side of the Atlantic—this is not the nouvelle vague of Truffaut, Godard and Rivette. For those who have little or no experience with our neighbors along the Saint Lawrence, “New Wave North” is much more than a collection of filmmakers or aesthetic tendencies. It is an initiation to the pleasures and anxieties most Québécois recognize in themselves, right now, when they go to the movies. A ticket to the last fully French North America. This series is also a ticket to a particular generation of directors. Most prominent Québec artists and intellectuals know or have at least met each other, since the province comprises only 8 million or so people in a sea of at least 300 million English speakers. This forges some sense of linguistic solidarity among native French speakers who make up over 80% of the population, and to a lesser degree even to those for whom French is simply a fluent second language. There is a coherence in being part of a small, surrounded group, and filmmakers are an even smaller band within the larger one. Yet these filmmakers are quick to dismiss suggestions that they represent a unified trend. “Before you ask the question, I’ll answer it,” laughed Philippe Falardeau after bagging a Genie last year for La moitié gauche du frigo (The Left Side of the Fridge), “There is no new wave of Québec directors.” Maybe not, but each of the films in this series recognizes Québec society—either in its contemporary environment or its preoccupation with history—in ways that resound in theaters from Montréal to the Gaspé peninsula, especially with young people just starting to make their way in the world. Canadian critic Dmitri Katadotis

lauds André Turpin for his sense of detail in Un crabe dans la tête (Soft Shell Man), declaring that “nobody has a keener sense of Québec society than Turpin.” Falardeau’s own “mockumentary,” La moitié gauche du frigo (The Left Side of the Fridge), is dead-on accurate in its portrayal of Montréal twenty- and thirtysomethings arguing, partying, flirting and looking for work. The cheapness and spontaneity Falardeau creates with his hand-held digital camera confirm, voyeuristically, that this is a slice of Montréal life. Denis Villeneuve’s Maelström slices youngish life in urban Québec with a much more surreal knife. This quirky film comes to our screens with both hands full—one with 2001 Genies, and the other with preoccupations that are thoroughly Québécois. Cinephiles will note the influence of certain older European directors in this movie—the serendipitous turns of events recall Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Franco-Polish Trois couleurs trilogy (Bleu, Blanc and Rouge, aka Three Colors: Blue, White and Red), and certain shots evoke Jean-Luc Godard so strongly as to constitute outright quotes (note the swirling coffee close-up, and its counterpart in Godard’s 1967 film 2 ou 3 choses que je sais d’elle, aka Two or Three Things I Know About Her). These stylistic nods acknowledge both a FrancoQuébécois link in general and a film heritage whose lineage, even recently, comes right from France. Yet Villeneuve himself defines his “Québecness” much like others of his generation do—telling the New York Times just this February that, when Québec artists are in France, “we feel American.” He continues, closing the circle as most young Québécois are in the habit of doing in these conversations: “But when we are in America, we feel French.” This purely Québécois Americanness (which in Québec is often referred to, positively, as américanité) pervades Maelström, in spite of its nods to European cinema. Like Falardeau and Turpin—and even to some extent, Catherine Martin—Villeneuve surrounds his main character with particularly Québécois forms of sex, fashion, money, and lifestyle. As in the series’ other films and countless other Québécois works across the arts, water is a particularly noteworthy symbol in Maelström. This is, after all, a society founded and still thriving along the river that led Europeans into the heart of the New World, and the ancient fish that narrates the film somehow indicates a larger Québécois awareness of water as the prime component of both life and death. Martin’s Mariages echoes a different set of sentiments in Québec: those surrounding individual life in community, set in a uniquely Québécois past. Picked from the most recent crop of Québec films, Martin’s is so noticeable precisely for its pace: is silent, slow and decidedly unhip. This is the chronicle of a young woman’s sensual awakening in late nineteenthcentury rural Québec, right before she is to move to a convent and become a nun. Mariages blends pregnantpause realism with its magical counterpart, drifting into dreamlike sequences that resemble less narrative cinema than dance or even painting. Like a number of Québec narratives over the last fifty years, Martin’s film constantly reminds us how totally reliant one can be on family and place—and how stifling it can be when those you count yourself among are so

New Wave North: Recent Films from Québec SPONSOR(S) > Ministère des Relations

internationales du Québec, Québec Delegation Chicago, UW-Madison Professional French Masters Program PROGRAMS

L’ Ange de goudron KINO: Short Films from Québec The Left Side of the Fridge Maelström Mariages Meet the Filmmakers: Québec sur Québec Soft Shell Man

From the top: Maelström; and L’Ange de goudron (Tar Angel). constantly present, confined to a relatively small physical area. Denis Chouinard’s L’Ange de goudron (Tar Angel) is also to a great extent about both generations and the ties that bind them together in small communities. The story of a family of Algerian immigrants to Québec, this film treats the stresses of exile on a family displaced from the French-speaking world’s warmest end to its coldest. There is something experimental in the premise. Chouinard takes members of the most prominent minority group in France—North Africans—and places them in a society where they are by no means the primary immigrant group, and in a physical environment about as far removed from the Mediterranean as one can imagine. Chouinard has even caused certain critics to wonder if he isn’t, by this very choice, enhancing the marketability of his Québécois film to French audiences, who are themselves accustomed to routine cinematic inspections of their own racism against Algerian immigrants. Yet the Québecness of its environs and the props brings this film so much closer to the typical Québécois viewer than it would have had it been filmed in France, or even totally in a Montréal neighborhood. As such, it does an excellent job of questioning this particular era’s approach to immigrants, bureaucracy, and multiculturalism, just northeast of our own stretches of snow and snowmobiles. Perhaps the oddest and most concise take on all these themes—family, generations, natural environment, and work—is Falardeau’s Jean Laliberté, a hilarious eight minute-long joke on entrepreneurism and car culture. Falardeau shot this excellent short film armed only with family members, his parents’ cottage, and two mini-DV tapes. Jean Laliberté, a self-proclaimed young “visionary” businessman who dreams

of building the world’s largest parking lot, parodies one of Falardeau’s least favorite North American phenomena—automobile-centered urban sprawl. In their 1993 hit, “La Rue Principale,” the wildly popular (and now defunct) band Les Colocs delightfully promised to bulldoze the shopping center that had bled their little Québec hometown dry. With Colocs-like gusto, Falardeau strikes the odd balance of humor and anger—this time, with his digital camera. In eight minutes, he exposes a major weakness in the way Québécois think about the resources around them. At the same time, he manages to prove that digital technology can now democratize filmmaking everywhere—all one needs now are a camera, some good ideas, and a brother willing to put on a suit and stumble around in the woods. If “New Wave North” glimpses a distinct generation, it also tells us a lot about how Québec sees itself in the larger world. Comments in English are sprinkled throughout the films in this series (with the exception of Mariages), much as English is in daily life in Québec. However, the use of English is such a given, at least by younger Québécois, that it is almost a banality, at least in Montréal. These films never seem to question the language divide itself, but they do shed light on ways Québec fits in with surrounding societies, and especially with the rest of Canada. For reasons both fiscal and cultural, Québec films routinely receive Canadian funding, either from the federal government or financiers located outside the province. Filmmakers also participate actively in Canadian festivals and awards ceremonies, and even occasionally make movies in English. For these reasons and others, this generation exhibits a sharp awareness of what is Canadian about its films, and likes to talk about it. Directors discuss this with diplomatic acuity in the English-language Canadian press. “I think Canadian films are like Canadian beers,” Falardeau tells Eye magazine, “There are fine local products, but it’s tough to get them across the borders of the provinces.” Yet Falardeau is not simply catering to his anglophone audience by reassuring them of his own—or Québec’s own—links to Canada. La moitié gauche du frigo (The Left Side of the Fridge) actually attempts to blend what is typically seen as an AngloSaxon comedic style with a public (and in a language) much more accustomed to farce and comical situations that to the wry sarcasm that pervades his film. Falardeau’s experiment seems to have worked: English-speaking audiences in other Canadian provinces have responded favorably, even in spite of subtitles. Others tip their hats to Canadian identity but see the issue more on the level of the characters themselves. Martin’s rural women predate a Québécois identity, as we see them confronted by the temptations of economically promising jobs in the Anglophone New England milltowns that gobbled up so many young French Canadians around the turn of the twentieth century. Villeneuve’s Algerian immigrants confront their new national setting in a number of scenes, confronting icons of Canadianness from the national anthem, “O Canada,” to the federal immigration authorities. André Turpin’s Un crabe dans la tête (Soft Shell Man), however, presents the most nuanced representation of Canadianness as seen from behind a Québécois lens. Turpin’s main character, Alex, gets into all kinds of trouble because he is at once noncommittal, afraid of confrontation, and desperate to be liked by everyone he meets. Turpin claims at first to have been writing about himself, but then admits that Alex “is a very Canadian character.” This simple remark rings like a particularly Québécois interpretation of Canadianness. Alex is charming and intelligent, but drifting and unable to confront the larger dilemmas he has gotten himself into—is this what makes him Canadian? But, like Québec and Canada themselves, the indecisive drifter and his relationships manage to find a way of working things out. At least for the time being. — RITT DEITZ, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR UW-MADISON PROFESSIONAL FRENCH MASTERS PROGRAM

WISCONSIN FILM FESTIVAL • APRIL 4-7, 2002 • MADISON • WWW.WIFILMFEST.ORG • 877.963.FILM

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Profile for Wisconsin Film Festival

2002 Wisconsin Film Festival Film Guide  

2002 Wisconsin Film Festival Film Guide  

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