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Québec libre

By STEVE VINEBERG  |  March 20, 2007

Entre le mer et l’eau douce is the kind of small, personal film that hardly anyone makes any more. So is Jutra’s À tout prendre, but it’s much quirkier. Jutra had absorbed the influences of the French New Wave directors, and this film, released in 1964, was his way of keeping faith with them, though a Québecois version of the New Wave has a different feel — it’s more modest, folksier. Jutra, a terrific actor, plays the hero, Claude, whose sexual life is the film’s main focus. (One of the women he sleeps with is played by Monique Mercure, who became one of the most distinguished actresses in Quebec. The chance to see Mercure and Bujold — the first French-Canadian performer to become famous outside Quebec — in the first bloom of their career is an additional pleasure of this series.)

In his native country, Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine is generally identified as the greatest Canadian movie ever made, but most Americans aren’t familiar with it, though unlike À tout prendre and Kamouraska it did get a US release. (I reviewed it for this newspaper in 1973.) Just as À tout prendre links Jutra to early Godard, Mon oncle Antoine suggests early Truffaut (especially Les quatre cents coups|The 400 Blows), but its sensibility is closer to Renoir’s. Based on the reminiscences of the screenwriter, Clément Perron, it’s set in a mining town in northern Quebec in the 1940s. The protagonist isn’t the title character but his nephew, Benoît (Jacques Gagnon), who works for his besotted uncle (Jean Duceppe) in a combination general store/undertaking parlor. In this classic coming-of-age story, the boy has his first glimpses of sex and death (Mercure plays the voluptuous Mme. Alexandrine, the notary’s wife, whose appearance in the store sends all the boys’ hormones into hyperdrive) and is brought to understand, for the first time, the limitations of his adolescent judgments. (Jutra himself plays Antoine’s assistant, whom Benoît surprises in bed with his aunt.) The movie contains two sequences no one ever forgets. In one, the English mine owner rides through town in his sleigh, scattering holiday trinkets for the children of the French miners whom he has cheated out of a Christmas bonus for the second year in a row; the parents stand in their doorways, unable either to encourage their kids to pick up these paltry gifts or to deny them. The second is a different kind of sleigh ride — through the moonlit, snow-blanketed woods, when Antoine, drunk, falls asleep at the reins and Benoît takes over, racing the horse recklessly though they’re bearing the coffined body of a boy his age on the back of the sleigh.

Mon oncle Antoine is a masterpiece. I would say the same of Kamouraska, though in the highly politicized climate of 1973 Quebec it was robbed of the warm critical reception it deserved because of its classical subject matter. Jutra adapted a bestseller by Anne Hébert about a sensuous, rebellious young woman (Bujold, in her most remarkable performance) in 1830s rural Quebec who marries the seigneur (Philippe Léotard) — the local landowner — and then, discovering he’s an alcoholic whoremonger, takes up with an American doctor (Richard Jordan). The story has links to Madame Bovary, but Bujold’s Elisabeth suggests other models from 19th-century fiction, like Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Kamouraska is actually more political than the Jutra’s countrymen gave it credit for: it’s an audacious indictment of the means employed by a provincial Victorian society governed by the French Catholic Church to represses a woman’s spirit. Its position in the series alongside Mon oncle Antoine and Brault’s powerful Les ordres completes a rich and broad historical portrait of the province that nurtured these two brilliant artists.

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