Northern lights: Lyne Charlebois' 'Borderline' in SFFS's Québec Film Week is a complex character study about a young woman whose traumatic upbringing results in adult alcoholism, sex addiction, romantic obsession and other random acts of self-destruction. (Photo courtesy SFFS)

Québec Film Week's Unprovincial Pleasures

Dennis Harvey December 10, 2008

The "other" Canada, French-speaking province Québec, suffers no inferiority complex when it comes to filmmaking. It generates arthouse megahits like the ’70s coming-of-age flashback C.R.A.Z.Y. and mainstream ones like bilingual comedy Bon Cop, Bad Cop, which last year became the highest-grossing domestic release ever—surpassing even the original Porky’s. (Yes, Porky’s was officially all-Canadian, though it scrupulously avoided seeming so in order to crash the U.S. market.)

Oft overlooked abroad (in the U.S., we’ve tended to treat Canada entire as the harmless but generally ignorable neighbor), Québec’s thriving regional cinema is showcased in San Francisco Film Society’s latest mini-festival addition to the annual Bay Area movie calendar. Québec Film Week, which starts tonight, offers five days and eight features at the Opera Plaza that encompass the best of recent Québecoix moviemaking—plus one archival flick generally considered the entire nation’s greatest feature ever.

It opens with a double-bill of two disparate but particularly good films. At 6:15 p.m., there’s Sophie Deraspe’s Missing Victor Pellerin, a fascinating mindfreak that poses as documentary. The titular subject is a globe-trotting artist and forger who vanished in 1990, and is variously described by former lovers, relatives, and confederates as charismatic, parasitical, brilliant, a "mental case," and monster. Is he still alive? Does he even deserve to be? Montreal art-scene interviewees ("playing" themselves) agree to disagree. Does this movie convey nonfiction truth, or is it its own ingenious objet d’art hoax? I have my suspicions—but leave you to determine your own.

After an eight o’clock opening night party, there’s a 9 p.m. screening of Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s, latest and possibly best-yet effort by Léa Pool, one of Québec’s leading directors. Isabelle Hébert’s screenplay initially resembles Far From Heaven in its pre-Sexual Revolution sketch of a suburban wife who discovers her husband is secretly playing for the other team. But in this case it’s mom (Céline Bonnier) who splits, leaving closeted dad (Laurent Lucas) in bewildered charge of three variably acting-out young offspring. This kids’-eye view of domestic catastrophe is funny and charming, even if I didn’t quite buy the fadeout.

Another dysfunctional-family blowout is director Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette and scenarist Renee Beaulieu’s excellent The Fight, whose portrait of a 12-year-old aspiring wrestler from the wrongest side of Montreal tracks never succumbs to the Rocky cliche. Already a burly little tank for his age, youngest child of an abandoning junkie-prostitute mother and unreliable petty-criminal dad, Jessy (the remarkably assured Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay) channels all hopes—and frustrated aggression—into dreams of a Hulk Hogan-like future. Set largely in the same low-end live-cartoon-wrestling milieu as much-hyped forthcoming Mickey Rourke comeback The Wrestler (albeit en Francais), this is a better movie: Less formulaic, harsh, yet credibly hopeful.

There are four other titles in Québec Film Week, and there’s not a dud in the bunch. Jean Lemire’s The Last Continent, already one of the province’s most popular documentaries, offers reason anew to freak out about global warming as it chronicles the director/marine biologist’s eight-month expedition into endangered Antarctica.

Stéphane Lafleur’s Continental, A Film Without Guns is a droll, absurd, minimalist comedy linking several strangers to the disappearance of a drab middle-aged man who falls asleep during a bus ride and wakes up in the middle of nowhere. Lyne Charlebois’ Borderline is a complex character study about a young woman (Isabelle Blais) whose traumatic upbringing results in adult alcoholism, sex addiction, inapt romantic obsession (with a professor twice her age), and other random acts of self-destruction. While at first the film looks like it might be pseudo-high-minded, effortfully shocking sexploitation—a Canadian cinema staple—the sum quickly adds up to considerably more.

Québec Film Week ends with The Age of Ignorance, latest by most esteemed French-Canadian auteur and three-time Best Foreign Film nominee (for Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal, The Barbarian Invasions) Denys Arcand. (It was unavailable for preview.)

I’m not sure it can surpass the series’ sole retrospective item, Mon Oncle Antoine. Successive decades’ critic polls named this modest 1971 international breakthrough the greatest Canadian movie ever made (faint praise?)—but it really is wonderful. It’s one of those anecdotal, barely plotted, year-I-came-of-age life-slices that feel French no matter where they come from, whose separation between flavorful and phony can seem separated by an inspirational breath. This one is about a formative 1940s season in the very small-town life of Benoit (Jacques Gagnon), encompassing his first stirrings of sexual desire and first grapplings with mortality. (The all-purpose village store he works for doubles as mortuary.)

Joyful even in its eventual sobriety, late auteur Claude Jutra’s film broke open the horizons of Québec cinema—such that the province’s own screen awards (the Jutras, as opposed to overall-Canadian Genies) remain named after him. Granted rare Stateside screening this Sunday afternoon, Mon Oncle Antoine is an underappreciated, openhearted world classic you’d be foolish to miss. I feel foolish enough for not having seen it before.