The Cinema of Quebec

April 12, 2019

by Georges Privet

Since its beginnings, the cinema of Quebec has embodied and reflected the tensions of the society that brought it to life. Both consciously and unconsciously, it has focused on the fears and aspirations of Quebecers, which go hand in hand with their  quest for identity and their struggle. From the early days, when it consisted mainly of ethnographic documentaries made by a handful of priests, to the worldwide successes of Denys Arcand, Xavier Dolan and Denis Villeneuve, its story remains surprisingly constant, despite the changing times and fashions.

Whether we place its origins in the NFB’s move to Montreal (1956), in the advent of Cinéma Direct (1958), or in the release of its founding works – A tout prendre by Claude Jutra (1963), and Le Chat dans le sac by Gilles Groulx (1964), – it appears from the start to have been moulded by its own fundamental preoccupations: a feeling of historical abandonment, a physical relationship to its homeland, its relentless quest for identity, its ambiguous religious connections, and its attitude to otherness in all its forms.

Although Quebec cinema has been celebrated internationally since the Cannes premiere of Pierre Perrault’s Pour la suite du monde in 1963, it only really began to flourish with the end of the ‘60s, while Expo67 finally brought the winds of change (which were already sweeping the rest of the world) to Quebecers.  Expo67 accelerated sexual liberation, which had already begun a few years earlier, and which gave birth to a brief, though very popular, wave of erotic films that cast a fond eye on melodrama (Valérie by Denis Héroux), and at times on humour (Deux femmes en or by Claude Fournier).


Le Chat dans le sac

Although short lived, this wave laid the foundations for commercial cinema, on which some writers imposed their own personal visions: Gilles Carle, with his sense of humour and sensuality (La vraie nature de Bernadette); Claude Jutra, with his vicissitudes of love and childhood (Mon Oncle Antoine, Kamouraska); Francis Mankiewicz, with his sweet and unusual lyricism (Le temps d’une chasse, Les Bons débarras); and later on, André Forcier, with his surreal yet deeply human world (L’eau chaude, l’eau frette, Une Histoire inventée).

In 1973 during this same period, a group of NFB-affiliated filmmakers began making En tant que femmes – a series of films (both documentary and fictional), which addressed women’s issues. De mère en fille, by Anne Claire Poirier, came out in 1968, becoming the first Quebec feature film directed by a woman. This was followed, in 1972, by Mireille Dansereau’s La Vie rêvée, the first feature film from the independent sector directed by a woman.

This era was marked by important political concerns. These can regularly be seen in instances where important documentaries were affected by censorship , such as Denys Arcand’s On est au Coton. Additionally, the October Crisis of 1970 left visible traces in three of the most outstanding films of the period: Les Ordres by Michel Brault, Réjeanne Padovani by Denys Arcand and the more popular Bingo, by Jean-Claude Lord. These films became part of a growing national awareness, which culminated with the election of the Parti Québécois in 1976, but which would soon decline following the referendum defeat of 1980.


Les Ordres

Denys Arcand would ironically transform this political setback, along with the accompanying recession of  nationalist ideas on identity, into Quebec’s first international success: Le Déclin de l’empire américain. He continued to build this momentum with several more successes, including Jésus de Montréal and, a while later, Les Invasions barbares and L’âge des ténèbres.

The international success of Déclin de l’empire américain also saw the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers dreaming of international recognition: Yves Simoneau (Pouvoir intime, Dans le ventre du dragon), Jean‑Claude Lauzon (Un zoo la nuit, Léolo) and Léa Pool (À Corps perdu, Anne Trister) – one of the few women who managed to maintain continuous momentum in her career.

The excitement of the era also gave rise to the childrens’ film series, Contes pour tous, produced by Rock Demers, which saw would lead to the creation of other classics, including La guerre des tuques by André Melançon. Then, over the next decade, a new generation of directors from video and other forms of art would come along to shake up the cinema of Quebec. Among these we can count Denis Villeneuve (Un 32 août sur terre, Maelström), André Turpin (Zigrail, Un crabe dans la tête), François Girard (32 films brefs sur Glenn Gould, Le Violon rouge), Robert Lepage (Le Confessionnal, La face cachée de la lune) and Robert Morin (Requiem pour un beau sans‑cœur, Windigo).


Déclin de l’empire américain

The new millennium would bring the greatest successes for Quebec cinema, both for auteur-driven works and for commercial cinema. Among the greatest of these were several films that continuedQuebecers fascination with family drama (Gaz bar Blues by Louis Bélanger, and C.R.A.Z.Y. by Jean-Marc Vallée), as well as the works of Bernard Émond, whose films depict Quebec’s attachment to the religious values of its past (La Neuvaine and La Donation).

While  commercial cinema was scoring a hit, focusing on the values of its heritage – whether in the form of Aurore, the remake of La petite Aurore, l’enfant martyre, directed  by Luc Dionne, or Séraphin : Un homme et son pêché and Maurice Richard (both directed by Charles Binamé) – 2006 would also bring what would undoubtedly remain the greatest success, coast to coast, for Quebec cinema, Bon Cop Bad Cop by Érik Canuel.

The following years were more difficult, especially for documentaries, which were now at the mercy of television.  Nonetheless, they , were characterised by the arrival of a new generation of female directors. Their works, which would contribute to the growing international recognition of Quebec films, include those by  Anne Émond (Nuit #1),Sophie Desrape (Les signes vitaux),  Chloe Robichaud (Sarah préfère la course), Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette Inch’Allah), Nathalie Saint-Pierre (Catimini) and Louise Archambault (Gabrielle).


Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah Prefere la Course) (2013)

Sarah préfère la course

Two events, at the turn of 2009-2010, would bring a breath of fresh air: the arrival of the young prodigy Xavier Dolan, acclaimed at Cannes for J’ai tué ma mère,  (who would soon be credited with several notable successes, particularly in France, Laurence Anyways, Tom à la ferme, and Mommy), and the recognition of Denis Villeneuve, who won an Oscar for Incendies and has since pursued a career in Hollywood (Prisoners, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049). These successes were quickly followed by those of Jean-Marc Vallée ( Dallas Buyers Club and Wild), while more and more Quebec filmmakers – such as Kim Nguyen, Philippe Falardeau, Christian Duguay and Daniel Roby – would turn to Europe or the US to pursue their careers.

At the same time,other filmmakers continued to find success at festivals in spite of a lack of success with Quebec audiences, including Denis Côté (Bestiaire and Vic + Flo ont vu un ours), Maxime Giroux (Félix et Meira and La grande noirceur), Philippe Lesage (Les Démons and Genèse), and the duo formed of Mathieu Denis and Simon Lavoie (Laurentie and Ceux qui font les révolutions à moitié n’ont fait que se creuser un tombeau). Their films, like many made by their contemporaries, seem to be obsessed with a recurring question: what is, and always will be, our relationship to others?

At a time when filmmakers are finally finding equality and minorities are more visible than ever, when the survival of the documentary is being threatened, and political cinema is disappearing, our cinema must fight for its place in the competitive world of TV, internet and new streaming platforms. However, it shall persevere as it has always done – reflecting to a greater or lesser degree, more or less, the dreams and contradictions of a people who have found their identity and their survival in the art of constant adaptation to the world around them.

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