by Georges Privet
From the beginning, the cinema of Quebec has always embodied, and reflected, the tensions of the society it has brought to life. Both consciously and unconsciously, it has focussed on its fears and aspirations, which, since its creation, have gone hand in hand with the Quebecers’ quest for identity and their struggle. From its earliest times, 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, in 1963, and Le Chat dans le sac by Gilles Groulx, in 1964, – it appears from its starting point to have been moulded by its own institutional preoccupations: a feeling of historical abandonment, a physical relationship to its homeland, its relentless quest for an identity, its ambiguous religious connections, and its attitude to otherness in all its forms.
Although it 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 the Expo67 event facilitated the winds of change, which were sweeping the world to eventually reach the Quebecers. This event 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 Denis Héroux), and at times on humour (Deux femmes en or by Claude Fournier).
Although short lived, this wave laid the foundations for commercial cinema, on which some writers imposed their own personal visions: whether this was from Gilles Carle, with his sense of humour and sensuality(La vraie nature de Bernadette), from Claude Jutra, with his vicissitudes of love and childhood (Mon Oncle Antoine, Kamouraska), from Francis Mankiewicz, with his sweet and unusual lyricism (Le temps d’une chasse, Les Bons débarras), or later on, from André Forcier, with his surreal yet deeply human world (L’eau chaude, l’eau frette, Une Histoire inventée).
During the same period, in 1973 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 La Vie rêvée, the first feature film from the independent sector directed by a woman, Mireille Dansereau.
This era was marked by important political preoccupations. These can regularly be seen in documentaries where censorship problems affected important works, 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 formed 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. Ironically, Denys Arcand would transform this failure, along with the accompanying retreat into nationalist ideas on identity, bringing out the cinema of 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, with 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 continuity in her production.
The excitement of the era also gave rise to the series, Contes pour tous, produced by Rock Demers, which 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 can be counted 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).
The new millennium would bring the greatest successes for Quebec cinema, both for the auteur and for commercial cinema. Among the greatest of these were some that would serve to perpetuate the Quebecers fascination with family dramas (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).
At the same time 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, produced 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’s cinema, Bon Cop Bad Cop by Érik Canuel.
The following, and more difficult, years, especially for documentaries, which were now at the mercy of television, were nevertheless characterised by the arrival of a new generation of female directors. Their works, which would contribute to the growing international recognition of Quebec films, would be made by Anne Émond’s (Nuit #1), by Sophie Desrape (Les signes vitaux), by Chloe Robichaud (Sarah préfère la course), by Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette (Inch’Allah), by Nathalie Saint-Pierre (Catimini) and by Louise Archambault (Gabrielle).
Two events, at the turn of 2009-2010, would bring a fresh breath of air: the arrival of the young prodigy, Xavier Dolan, acclaimed at Cannes for J’ai tué ma mère, and whose name would be credited to 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 (Prisonners, Sicario, and Blade Runner 2049). These successes were quickly followed by those of Jean-Marc Valée (The 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 States to pursue their careers.
At the same time, though generally shunned by the public of Quebec, some filmmakers continued to win at festivals, whether this was 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), or 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, though also when the survival of the documentary is being threatened and political cinema is disappearing, our cinema must, from now on (just like the others) fight for its place in the competing world of TV, internet and new streaming platforms. However, it shall continue as it has always done; by reflecting, in a more or less purposeful way, the dreams and contradictions of a people who have found their identity, and a means to survive in the milieu of art, as they continue to adapt to the world around them.