[Image courtesy of the SFFS and Seville Pictures.]
From this Wednesday night through Sunday, the San Francisco Film Society and SODEC present the inaugural Québec Film Week at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema. Consisting of eight films, all but one of which were recently released, the series focuses mainly on debut films and presents three features by veteran directors. The one older film is an almost obligatory screening of that touchstone of Québécois film history: Claude Jutra’s 1971 classic, Mon Oncle Antoine.
Opening night starts off with one of these fine debuts. Sophie Deraspe’s prior work was in short documentaries, and she brought all that experience to her first feature, a fiction in documentary form entitled Missing Victor Pellerin, about an artist who disappeared fifteen years earlier — that is, if he existed in the first place. It was well-reviewed upon its US release in 2007.
The second film that night is Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s (pictured above) by the accomplished director Léa Pool. Of the six films I had a chance to preview, this was one of the best. The story plays out in late 1960s suburban Montréal over a tumultuous summer in the life of an adolescent girl, Elise, and her family, which breaks up over the father’s clandestine involvements with other men. After the mother finds out about them — in a powerful, shocking scene, Elise outs him — the mother soon leaves the family, and the rest of the film explores the struggles the family faces without the mother, and the entanglements, romantic and otherwise, among the kids.
My favorite film by far was Stephane Lafleur’s dry, droll debut Continental, a Film Without Guns, which won the Prix Jutra this year. The title, which still puzzles me, is just the first enigma of many in the story. The description from the festival page — “a meditation on modern loneliness and loss [that] follows a collection of tragic characters and depicts their aimless attempts at connection” — is accurate enough, but it doesn’t even begin to convey how hilarious and touching the film really is. There are many serious turns, many moments that expose the deepest kind of loss and loneliness, but there is a subtle absurdity throughout in the situations the characters find themselves in, and create for themselves, that kept me constantly laughing, and in the end I couldn’t get them out of my head. Definitely don’t miss this one if you have a taste for this kind of thing — and we’ll be hoping for more from Lafleur in the future.
If I had to give an award to the most beautifully-shot film in the series, that would go to The Last Continent, most of which consists of lengthy shots of the Antarctic landscape, illuminated by the brightest, bluest skies on the planet, and accompanied by Donald Sutherland’s soothing voice-over. Directed by Jean Lemire, a scientist and director of three previous films, this film purports to be a documentary about the effects of climate change in Antarctica. In fact, it touches so lightly on the science that it left me a little frustrated, and I often found myself wondering what precisely they were tracking and measuring. But it was interesting all the same: in addition to the incredible photography, it deftly captures life at one of the strangest and most dangerous frontiers on Earth. Plus it entertainingly exposes the social stresses that inevitably develop when a small handful of people is confined to a tiny boat in the middle of a frozen wasteland for several months on end. With four hours of sunlight per day.
The Fight (which is given a much better name, In The Ring, by the subtitles) is another debut feature. It’s highly effective but almost unrelentingly depressing: the ending features the male lead riding his bicycle and smiling, and you can tell that this was supposed to make us feel hopeful, but unfortunately — given what had gone before — that smile was just about the most dispiriting thing I’ve seen all year. And it’s December. That sounds like a bad review, but in fact I thought it was quite a compelling film, put together with an expert sense of pacing and character development. Above all, the best thing about The Fight was the incredible performances given by the male lead, Maxime Desjardins-Tremblay (who also appears in a supporting role in Mommy Is at the Hairdresser’s) and Julianne Cote, who plays the sister. A huge number of the shots are tightly focused close-ups on the actor’s faces, potentially a risky move with adolescents, but here it really works well.
Films not previewed were The Age of Ignorance by Denys Arcand and Borderline by Lyne Charlebois.
Quebec Film Week screens Wednesday, December 10 through Sunday, December 14, 2008 at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema. Tickets on opening night include complimentary reception at Shima Sushi. Visit here to get more information, check out the festival schedule, and buy advance tickets.