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Screenings and Meanings

By Gerald Schmitz


A look at what's happening in Canadian cinema


Gerald SchmitzThe Canadian Screen Awards (CSA) will be broadcast on CBC this Sunday but chances are few Canadians will actually have seen most if any of the nominated films, which can be hard to find even for the dedicated filmgoer. Every December the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) announces its “Canada’s Top 10.” I’ve still only seen four from that list; one of those, Tu dors Nicole (You’re Sleeping Nicole) courtesy of an Air Canada flight. It’s among the six best-picture nominees on the CSA list. The $100,000 Toronto film critics association’s Rogers best Canadian film award, announced in January, went to Denis Villeneuve’s Enemy, featuring a great performance by Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role. It was honoured at the 2014 CSAs as was Michael Dowse’s The F Word (released in the U.S. as What If, though the “f” stands for nothing more racy than “friend”). British actor Daniel Radcliffe had a starring role in that and also appeared in the weird horror flick Horns, a Canada-U.S. coproduction.

The most talked about Canadian movie of 2014 was undoubtedly Mommy from Québécois wunderkind Xavier Dolan who also acts up a storm in Charles Binamé’s English-language Elephant Song. Mommy, which has nominations in almost all CSA categories, shared a jury prize in the Cannes festival’s main competition and was Canada’s entry for the Oscars. Following on 2013’s Tom at the Farm, it’s an audacious rapid-fire drama about a single mother (Anne Dorval) coping with the frequent outbursts of her troubled teenage son (Antoine Olivier Pilon). Another Cannes selection with CSA potential is David Cronenberg’s savage Hollywood satire Maps to the Stars for which Julianne Moore won best actress. It’s fared better than Atom Egoyan’s The Captive which still has a couple of CSA nominations despite being a flop at Cannes.

Dolan, whose next film is The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, looks to join other notable Quebec filmmakers who are building strong reputations working in English. In addition to Villeneuve (Prisoners), this includes Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club, Wild), Philippe Falardeau (The Good Lie), and François Girard (Boychoir). Indeed these American productions are reaching much bigger audiences than strictly Canadian features. Veteran of the Quebec scene Denys Arcand continues to resist Hollywood. But his latest, Le règne de la beauté (An Eye for Beauty) is one of his weakest films.

The best Canadian movie I saw last year is Sébastien Pilote’s Le demantèlement (The Auction) which premiered at Cannes in 2013 and for which Gabriel Arcand won the best actor CSA last year. It’s a haunting rural elegy for an aging sheep farmer (Arcand) whose daughters have left for the big city. Unable to resist their demands he stands to lose a legacy and way of life.

More recently I can recommend Maxime Giroux’s Félix et Meira, chosen best Canadian feature at TIFF yet strangely absent from the CSA’s best-picture list. In wintry Montreal a loner, Félix, at loose ends when his estranged father dies, make a chance connection with Meira (Malaka in Yiddish), a young woman, stifled in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish marriage, who loves her infant daughter but wants more than being a dutiful baby-making handmaid. The platonic relationship that develops with Félix gives her both tender affection and a sense of freedom to be herself. Inevitably her husband is unable to tolerate that friendship and she must decide whether to break away into an unknown future. The movie is admirably restrained and respectful in the way that it explores a difficult terrain of faith, love and forgiveness.

I’m not that impressed by either Stéphane Lafleur’s black-and-white Tu Dors Nicole or Andrea Dorfman’s Halifax-based Heartbeat. Both feature rather aimless female lead characters that I found hard to care much about. However, a few other films deserve positive mention.

Uvanga (, from the creative Igloolik-based filmmaking partnership of Marie-Hélène Cousineau and Madeline Ivalu, tells the story of Tomas (Lukasi Forrest), the 14-year-old son of Anna (Marianne Farley) from an affair she had while working briefly in Igloolik. Raised in Montreal, Tomas has no knowledge of his father or Inuit culture. He faces a challenging adjustment when Anna brings him to Igloolik in order to reconnect with his origins.

Luc Chamberland’s Seth’s Dominion won the grand prize at the 2014 Ottawa International Animation Festival, the biggest of its kind in North America. The National Film Board production explores the creative world of noted Canadian cartoonist Seth who proves to be an engaging guide to a prolific career in the art of graphic storytelling.

Another NFB documentary, Chelsea McMullan’s My Prairie Home, which premiered at Sundance 2014, was nominated for a CSA last year. It follows transgender troubadour Rae Spoon as “they” (the pronoun used when neither he nor she fits) tour the country. The Alberta-born singer/songwriter overcame an abusive childhood to find personal fulfilment in creating music that connects with its prairie roots.

I’ve seen only two of the four documentaries nominated for the best feature CSA on March 1. Annie St-Pierre’s Fermières (Farm Women) is an affectionate look at four longtime rural activists in the Country Women’s Circles, Quebec’s oldest women’s organization. Super Duper Alice Cooper, which premiered at Tribeca 2014, looks back over the career of the aging shock-rock icon. Surprisingly left out (though given an editing nomination) is Robert Kennedy’s excellent Altman, which examines the unconventional work and legacy of Robert Altman, one of America’s most independent-minded filmmakers.

Looking ahead, while My Prairie Home was almost the only Canadian content at Sundance 2014, this year’s festival showcased a number of Canadian features and coproductions.

By far the most far-out and extravagant is The Forbidden Room ( ) which premiered in the “New Frontier” program. It’s an operatic spectacle that defies categorization from Guy Maddin and Evan Johnson conjuring Maddin’s trademark use of silent-film mash-ups and montage. The strange overlapping narratives involving a large cast of English and French-speaking actors were shot in Manitoba, Montreal and Paris. They include instructions on how to take a bath, the plight of men trapped in a submarine, a backwoodsman’s tale, a damsel held captive by “Red Wolves,” and much else about which there’s no point trying to make sense. At two hours this is probably for Maddin fans only, which include Ioncinema’s Nicholas Bell who praises its “endlessly beautiful weirdness . . . unforgettable climaxes . . . conglomeration of visions, dreams, and madness.”

The Sundance world cinema competition included writer-director François Delisle’s Chorus, also a Berlin film festival selection. Filmed in austere black and white, it’s a moving drama about an estranged couple whose lives have been torn apart by the murder of their eight-year old son Hugo a decade earlier. Irène (Fanny Malette) lives alone in Montreal, seeking solace in choral music. Christophe (Sébastien Ricard) has moved to Mexico, drowning his sorrows in other relationships. When an incarcerated pedophile confesses, the boy’s remains are located and Christophe returns to find closure. The performances are deeply emotive yet restrained, including by veterans Geneviève Bujold as Irène’s mother and Pierre Curzi as Christophe’s father. A final scene where the couple meet with one of Hugo’s grownup school chums leaves open a hope that they can move beyond their loss.

In the U.S. dramatic competition, Robert Eggers won the Sundance jury best director award for the Canada-U.S. coproduction The Witch, a chilling story drawn from New England folk tales that was filmed in Northern Ontario. Set in the 17th century, an ill-fated Christian family has been banished from their Puritan settlement and struggles to survive in a hardscrabble clearing next to sinister deep dark woods. Among the five children the older sister jokes to her siblings about being possessed by the devil until the demonic starts to take over. With its meticulous set design and escalating sense of dread, this historical legend is one hell of a horror story.

In the world documentary competition, The Amina Profile was another strong Canadian selection. I’ll discuss it in the next weeks’ columns on the best dramas and documentaries from the Sundance festival. One can only hope this international exposure will help increase the very limited chances for theatrical distribution that continue to bedevil Canadian films.