The Canadian Invasions: French Canucks and Guy Maddin Lead a Modest Charge
by Anthony Kaufman
"I feel that I'm slowly seeping onto a few more palettes," admits Guy Maddin, the Winnipeg auteur whose latest woolly fever-dream "The Saddest Music in the World" will open next week's Canadian Front, an inaugural series of contemporary Canadian films at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, before "Saddest Music" opens in U.S. theaters this April. "It's been a pretty slow process," continues Maddin. "But I'm pretty patient. I've never had any expectations that could be dashed."
The same could be said for the Canadian film industry, as a whole: modest, growing bit by bit, and finally on the verge of finding a wider audience. With Quebecois filmmaker Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" sweeping the French Cesars last weekend and poised to take home at least one Oscar this Sunday (it's nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film), the Canadians have a lot to be cheery about.
"I thought it was an extraordinary year, where many interesting and fine filmmakers -- whose careers we've been charting over the years -- all had new films," says MoMA's Laurence Kardish, noting some of Canadian Front's leading lights, which in addition to Maddin, include avant-gardist John Greyson ("Proteus," being distributed stateside by Strand), verite documentary luminary Allan King ("Dying at Grace," a painfully wrenching and vital examination of the terminally ill), and Montreal theater maven Robert Lepage ("The Far Side of the Moon," which just won a FIPRESCI prize in Berlin).
But filmmakers like Maddin and Lepage represent two very distinct sides of the Canadian movie world, Anglophone and Francophone. While the English-speaking cinema has given us a steady, yet intermittent stream of art-pics from Maddin, Atom Egoyan, and David Cronenberg and most recently, a number of solid documentaries such as the anti-corporate exposé "The Corporation" and Ron Mann's environmentalist "Go Further," dramatic features are suffering.
On the other hand, the Quebec narrative industry is soaring. In addition to "The Barbarian Invasions," Jean-François Pouliot's 2004 Sundance Audience Award winner "Seducing Doctor Lewis" recently edged out "Jurassic Park" as the ninth-highest-grossing film in the province of all time. (The film will play in MoMA's New Directors/New Films series following Canadian Front.)
"Despite extensive public investment in English language production, little of what has been created has connected with its audiences," admitted Richard Stursberg, executive director of Telefilm Canada, in a recent corporate report. (Telefilm, a federal cultural agency, which injected CAN$239 million into Canadian film, TV and media projects in 2002, is co-presenting the MoMA series.)
Statistics back up Sturberg's claim: last year's French-language domestic market share was a healthy 18.8% in Quebec, while the English-language share was a dismal 0.9%. While total market share of Canadian films rose from 2.6 percent to 3.6 percent last year, most of that increase was again a result of French product.
To address this split, TeleFilm, which is targeting a 5 percent market share goal by 2006, recently reorganized its management to reflect these two disparate cultures, and the fact that the English-language market is in dire need of special handling.
Ralph Holt, head of Telefilm's Canadian Feature Film Fund, blames, in part, Canada's proximity to the United States. "Being huge consumers of American culture, I think it's been more difficult for Canadian films to breakthrough," he says. "It's the age-old problem of English-speaking Canada competing with the largest industry in the world."
While Holt points to the local box office success of "Mambo Italiano," with CAN$5.1 million (the most successful English-language film in 20 years), that film was produced by the same Quebecois company that financed "The Barbarian Invasions."
Such hybridism in the Canadian film industry can only help the English language cause. And while MoMA's Kardish agrees there are two different cultures in Canada, once called "the two solitudes," he argues "The fact is they are all still Canadian and the funding comes from the same source, so there is a unity of tone," he continues. "English Canadian and French Canadian films share a modesty of purpose and a deep humanity -- a reasonableness."
Indeed, much of the Canadian Front program expresses this sensitivity towards the suffering soul. Quebec's Bernard Emond follows up his 2001 debut "The Woman Who Drinks" with one of the series' highlights, "8:17 PM, Darling Street," the story of a recovering alcoholic and former beat reporter fraught with survivor's guilt after discovering his apartment building has exploded, leaving six people dead. Part noir-mystery, part somber portrait of a man struggling with his demons, "Darling Street," a 2003 Cannes Critic's Week entry, occasionally lags with its long-running voice over. But the film is fairly compelling; thanks to a palpably weary performance from squinty-eyed lead Luc Picard and some sharp lines of dialogue ("divorce is like marriage, and after 20 years, our divorce was finally working").
The program's other Quebec-made features also touch on delicate nerves. With its precise, intriguing and wry visual landscape, Lepage's meandering "The Far Side of the Moon" focuses on a lonely doctoral student, contending with his mother's recent death, sibling rivalry and the space race -- with the weightlessness of the moon as "the ideal refuge for those who find life heavy."
Louis Bélanger's "Gaz Bar Blues" is also weighted down with worry. Using the fall of the Berlin Wall as a metaphorical backdrop for the dissolution of a Quebec family and the coming obsolescence of their little gas station, Bélanger's local sleeper success creates an amiable story of small-town Quebecois life that unfortunately overstays its welcome in the last reel.
Over in Western Canada, Vancouver-based Keith Behrman's "Flower and Garnet," which won a Canadian Genie Award for best first feature, takes the same modern and assured approach to his subject matter: the story of a father (the ubiquitous Canadian star Callum Keith Rennie) trying to raise a daughter and son after his wife's death in child birth. With strong performances across the board, both from its young and older cast members, "Flower and Garnet," however, is ultimately too earnest and too modest. One could say the same for rising Vancouver filmmaker Scott Smith's similarly quirky and dark "Falling Angels" (not in the series), which played to great critical acclaim in Canada but failed to win over many U.S. fans.
According to Telefilm's Ralph Holt, the organization is actively pursuing several ways to make for a more ambitious industry by increasing the size of budgets, revamping development guidelines to insure films are not rushed into production prematurely, and allowing the use of more non-Canadian name stars to attract the English Canadian audience.
Meanwhile, they're betting on two upcoming films to further cultivate Canadian audiences for local product, "Nouvelle France," a historical drama budgeted at over $30 million, with Gerard Depardieu and Irene Jacob, and "Get On," a youth-driven rock 'n' roll road trip, featuring cameos from Avril Lavigne and Jason Priestley. And there's Don McKellar's recently wrapped "Childstar," which is, appropriately enough, about an invasion that the Canadians know all too well: a Hollywood blockbuster shooting in -- and steamrolling over -- their Backyard.