Themes and ideology
in Quebec cinema

by Michel Houle

from Jump Cut, no. 22, May 1980, pp. 9-14
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1980, 2005

Michel Houle's original French article on Quebec cinema first appeared in Les Cinémas Canadiens, ed. Pierre Vironneau (Montreal: La Cinémathèque Québecois, and Paris: L'Hermier, 1978). We thank Pierre Véronneau, Michel Houle, and the Cinémathèque for their permission to reprint the article.

Marie-Claude Hecquet translated the article and Piers Handling, Michel Houle, and Tom Waugh added revisions. Tom Waugh contributed the directors and distribution guides and the footnotes (except where ME indicates Houle's authorship).

This English translation will appear as a chapter in the forthcoming book of essays on the cinemas of Quebec and English Canada to be published by the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa in 1980 (ed. Piers Handling). The photos are courtesy of the Photothèque of the Cinémathèque Québéqcoise. We would like to thank Micheline Ferron for her help with the photos.

The English film titles are Tom Waugh's except where they have already been translated in print or where there exists an English version with an English title either in Canada or the U.S.A. Because these exceptions are very few, we use the original French titles, supplying the English translation where necessary. The first time a film is mentioned, we give the director and date.

 - The Editors


Themes and ideology in Quebec cinema
 - Michel Houle

From a methodological point of view, the thematic and ideological analysis of a particular period in the history of a national cinema has little to do with the analysis of one particular film. In the latter instance the analyst is provided with a definite object, having numerable elements and a specific production framework. That object can be historically dated and belongs to a particular sociopolitical context. Furthermore, that object, and this is the most important point, is always organized in such a way that it belongs to a coherent whole. By this, of course, I mean it incorporates a structural coherence that is inherent to all finished cultural objects, as opposed to the apparent cohesion of the narrative, or of the subject.

Faced with such an object, analysts have the freedom, if they so wish, to ensure that their approach will have a certain degree of rigor, a certain degree of "scientificity." They can do a thorough sequential breakdown, even shot by shot, almost exhaust the thematic, and base their hypothesis upon their knowledge of the economic and technical history of the production of that film, etc.

When applied to areas that are vaster and more varied (films from a filmmaker, a school, a genre, etc.) analysts might lose a little of their self-assurance, in almost direct proportion to the quantitative increase in the material but also to its heterogeneity. Given equal numbers, no one would doubt that it is relatively easier to define the thematic and ideological tendencies of a series of films from a very specific genre (i.e., fantastic, western), compared to every film shown on television in the last few weeks

The film production of a country lies somewhere between those two extremes. It includes films on all subjects, of all genres, from all sources of productions, of all makes, belonging to direct cinema [1] as well as fiction, documentaries, and animation or compilation films, flops as well as hits (the fact is not innocent when you analyze it). On the other hand, these films have at least one thing in common. They have all been produced in the same geographic environment; by this I mean in the same economic, social, political, and cultural context. They occur and intervene in the same society.

Before approaching this body of work, I have narrowed it down to include only feature films and over the last few years, certain series of films (e.g., CARCAJOU ET LE PÉRIL BLANC/ CARCAJOU AND THE WHITE PERIL, Lamothe, 1976). It is a questionable bias, but it is what I have chosen. Even after this substantial reduction we could not exhaust the subject, count all the significant themes, or make a list of all the ideological currents that have succeeded each other. I have limited myself to some of the most important thematic movements which, beyond the irreducible variety of the works, have in quite a significant way, affected production from Quebec. To define them, I haven't systematically tried to accumulate the largest number of titles. Neither have I tried to thoroughly analyze a few representative films: examples have been chosen along the way.

To make things easier, I have singled out three phases in the evolution of Quebec cinema. The first one includes the forties and the fifties. The second one covers the period from 1959 — the death of Duplessis [2] — to 1968. Why 1968 and not 1970, for example, the date of the October Crisis? [3] Because in terms of the general ideological and political conjuncture, a whole series of events ("May 68," student riots in the United States and Germany, echoes of the Chinese cultural revolution) led to a rapid "politicization" of cultural practices. If the sixties were the years that saw the birth of the young national cinemas (including our own) and the proliferation of art house cinemas, after 1968-1969 the so-called political or militant cinema took the lead and Quebec cinema followed: the "etats généraux" [4] in 1968, the start of ON EST AU COTON (IN THE COTTON, Arcand, 1970), LE MÉPRIS N'AURA QU'UN TEMPS (HELL NO LONGER, Lamothe, 1970), ENTRE TU ET VOUS (BETWEEN YOU [singular familiar] AND YOU [plural], Groulx, 1969), the A.P.C.Q.'s manifesto, [5] etc. Also 1968 was, on a more regional level, the year which saw the creation of the Canadian Film Development Corporation, [6] which affected Quebec cinema.

The third period, of course, runs from 1968 to the present. For reasons that will be explained, we will differentiate, within these years, two sub-periods which largely overlap each other.

Church and Religiosity

The most obvious and consistent theme of the first period is unquestionably the omnipresence and the near omniscience of the clergy. Almost all the films made during this period deal with one of these two ideas. LE CURÉ DE VILLAGE (THE VILLAGE CURÉ, Gury, 1949) is, in that regard, a synthesis. The first two sequences are quite characteristic: during the credits, we are shown images introducing the curé of Saint-Vivien, jolly and debonair, presiding over the ceremonies of the faith, taking care of the religious education of children, playing ball with the young and checkers with old parishioners. Then a long lateral traveling shot follows the curé on his visit to the village; everybody greets him, seeks his counsel, asks for a visit, for a word of advice or comfort. The confusing story that follows has no other purpose than to explain and emphasize each of the spiritual arid social roles of the good curé. Of course, the clergy didn't always play leading parts, but even in minor roles they play a driving role in the development of the story. An example of this would be the curé in LA PETITE AURORE L'ENFANT MARTYRE (LITTLE AURORE, CHILD MARTYR, Bigras, 1952), who, as Denys Arcand has mentioned, [7] is literally used to get the story going and presides over all the decisions which determine Aurore's fate. It is the same with the chaplain in TIT-COQ (Gélinas, 1953), who, at the end of the film, makes a single speech that reverses all of the hero's previous decisions. In COEUR DE MAMAN (MOTHER'S HEART, Delacroix, 1953), the archbishop reprimands the ungrateful son and salvages the mother's lost dignity. And then there is the curé-agent from the Diocesan Company for Colonization in LES BRULÉS (THE PROMISED LAND, Devlin, 1958), around whom the life of the whole community revolves. We could add indefinitely to this list or find some other more obvious cases from documentaries or independent productions.

It is easy to explain why this theme was so powerful and permanent in the forties and fifties. It "reflects" the real influence of the Church in the social and cultural life of the Quebec people. Let's not forget that in 1940 the church in Quebec numbered at least 25,000 clergy, monks, and nuns, that it supplied 50% of the teachers to elementary and high schools, 90% of the teachers to classical colleges. It had almost complete and exclusive jurisdiction in the fields of social affairs and health (hospitals, orphanages, convalescent homes, charitable institutions, reform schools, etc.). Sectors of the economy and labor relations were no strangers to it either: most of the unions were confessional, with chaplains making sure that the Social Doctrine of the Church was applied and that an ideology of "human understanding" circulated. At that time the cooperative movement [8] was in full bloom and was also more or less directly under the thumb of a few clergymen who often held powerful positions in it. All this does not take into account the numerous Catholic organizations like the Crusaders, the Young Catholic Workers, the Ladies of St. Anne, and the Anti-Alcohol Leagues, which encompassed the faithful of all ages and at all levels. Taking this oppressing reality into account, it is not surprising that the Quebec cinema saw the clergy everywhere. We should not be surprised either that it respected it, flattered it, and quite often became the propagandist for the ideology it shoveled out. Indeed, as early as the forties the supremacy and the authoritarianism of the Quebec church were already being challenged from within its own ranks as well as by a small, well-educated fraction of the liberal petty bourgeoisie, who saw this omnipresence of the clergy as an obstacle to its own social rise and access to better jobs. Nonetheless, we don't find any real reduction of its effectiveness (58,000 clergymen, monks, and nuns in 1955, a ratio of 1 per 100 inhabitants), [9] and its hold over public awareness remained very strong.

We must also take into account the fact that subjects developed during that period by the cinema were often nostalgic, adapted from old literary works or from radio plays written during the thirties, that a number of filmmakers were themselves clergymen or fervent Catholic militants, and that the Church knew how to slide its tentacles into this new sector of cultural production (Renaissance Films, for example) [10] and was carefully guarding its interests there and everywhere else.

But even so, this deeply rooted theme underwent a spectacular disintegration during the sixties in terms of physical presence and the power of the clergy to act directly. The clergyman as a character practically disappeared from the cinematographic landscape. [11] If he still occasionally appears (like the ex-confessor in A TOUT PRENDRE [TAKE IT ALL, Jutra, 1963] to whom Claude goes for advice), he doesn't carry the same weight and doesn't always play the flattering role. J.-P. Lefebvre, for example, isn't afraid to carve up roast curé with the wild pleasure that we take in ridiculing people or functions we used to have to venerate for so long. And the few films whose subject is the fight within the school system for declericalization and the abandonment of authoritarian pedagogical models (TROUBLE-FÊTE /TROUBLEMAKER, Patry, 1964), or which treat the union's wish to destroy the ideology of "human understanding" bequeathed to them by the Church (LES 90 JOURS, 90 DAYS, Portugais, 1959), aren't very kind to the clergy.

Again, it is easy to tie the disappearance of this theme to the phenomenon of declericalization within Quebec society. Without belaboring the point, let's recall a few salient moments when the State or the laity took over responsibility for sectors traditionally under Church control: the creation of the Ministry of Welfare and Youth in 1958, the foundation of the Lay Movement for the French Language in 1960, the Hospital Insurance Act and the creation of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs in 1961, the publication of the first part of the Parent Report in 1963, which led to the creation of the Ministry of Education in 1964. [12] The clergy was supplanted everywhere and Quebec cinema echoed this process.

But this situation did not exactly match religious feelings within the province. You cannot sweep aside the patterns of moral behavior that have been rooted in consciences for decades all at once. It appears that for a few, the collapse of the institutions of the Church resulted in the religious models becoming interiorized, ending in an inability to conceive beyond that frame of reference. These few, diverging from the young Quebec cinema of Jutra, Groulx, Lefebvre, chose to stick to traditional narrative and fiction models. For example, all the films of Jean-Claude Lord and/or Pierre Patry at Coopératio [13] appear to be a series of variations on the theme of sin: fault, guilt, and remorse are the key words of CAIN (Patry, 1965), LA CORDE AU COD / THE ROPE AROUND THE NECK (Patry, 1965), DÉLIVEREZ-NOUS DU MAL /DELIVER US FROM EVIL (Lord, 1967), and TROUBLE-FÊTE. In the latter, the sacrificial suicide of Lucien looks like an act of redemption. These concerns about sin are also at the heart of a film like LE FESTIN DES MORTS (MISSION OF FEAR, F. Dansereau, 1965). Perhaps influenced by cine-club showings and the erudite exegesis of Brother Bonneville, [14] these filmmakers seem to think that their stories will only have depth if they are, in the last analysis, derived from biblical parables or anecdotes. CAIN is one of the most banal and insipid examples, but even LE GRAND ROCK (BIG ROCK, Garceau, 1968) can easily be read as a transparent allegory of the story of Adam and Eve. And even VALÉRIE (Heroux, 1968), our first skin flick, tells us a very moral story where Christian virtues are present. A lost sheep (Valérie) straying from the path of virtue (prostitution) is brought back to the fold (marriage and family life) by a good shepherd (her husband, the painter), big-hearted, understanding, and forgiving. Amen!

A Reversed Problematic

Another element appeared, largely in the films of the first period, that aroused important public involvement and revealed some of the ideological decor of the forties and fifties. This is the cult of the humiliated hero, beaten but morally righteous. As a matter of fact, it we consider only a few of the positive characters (as opposed to repulsive figures like Seraphin or Aurore's stepmother) whose reputations have survived and who are inscribed into the collective memory of the people (Alexis, Aurore, Donalda, Tit-coq), we realize that they have in common:

(1) the fact that their aspirations and their desires are always, at one point, in conflict with certain social duties, certain constraints imposed by the family, the community, or religion and that each time they return to the ranks, bending or giving in;

(2) by making this choice, by sacrificing their lives or their happiness, rather than failing in their duties (duties that are imposed on them), they acquire the halo of new moral qualities. Humiliated, resigned, and beaten, they at least have the conviction that they have not left the narrow path of Christian virtue, that they are in the right.

A certain version of the history of Quebec, as seen by the clerical and the petty bourgeois elites, is condensed into these individual destinies: although conquered, dominated politically and economically, the people of Quebec remain unfailing defenders of their language and their faith. They effectively blend into that community which has always been taught that Duty, Suffering, and Obedience were its destiny and a guarantee of a better Beyond.

If we ask ourselves what happens to this theme during the second phase, specifically within traditional fiction films, we realize that it does not remain unchanged but neither does it disappear. It undergoes a total inversion. As a matter of fact, the heroes of these films are not resigned; they rebel or at least remain unsubdued. They don't follow the rules nor do they return to the ranks: Jean seduces his brothers wife in CAIN, Leo drowns his mistress rather than accept her compromises in LA CORDE AU COU (ROPE AROUND THE NECK), Big Rock chooses crime rather than his miserable little life in LE GRAND ROCK, etc. But still they are not freed from the taboos and rules that they break. Their rebellion, their outbursts are never joyous or liberating; on the contrary, they resent them as faults, they live in guilt. They are not resigned and righteous but rebellious and guilty, no longer haloed but discredited in their conscience because of their refusal to submit. Gnawed at by remorse, perceiving themselves as outcasts, they choose not to exile themselves but to commit suicide. Such an inversion of the problematic is indirect proof of the persistence of the social and moral behavioral patterns imposed through religious ideology.

From French-Canadian to Québécois

There are also characters who don't have the slightest desire to rebel and are not concerned by any dramas of the conscience. Two typical examples are Leopold in LA VIE HEUREUSE DE LÉOPOLD Z. (THE MERRY WORLD OF LEOPOLD Z., Carle, 1965) and Jean Baptiste in PATRICIA ET JEAN-BAPTISTE (Lefebvre, 1966). We could call them symbolic heroes. Symbols of what, though? Of the typical French-Canadian, the docile worker, resigned, traditionally gullible, who lets others take advantage of him, and whose life seems to be immutably ruled by age-old habits, dividing his time among work, tavern, Forum, [15] and Mass. This is a synthesized stock-image, also in a way a cartoon. It is a picture that belongs to the past.

Not that we don't find any more Jean-Baptistes or Léopolds in the Quebec of the sixties. On the contrary, they are legion. This type of French Canadian is the product of certain historical forces, the result of certain power games, the legitimate offspring of Duplessis and our Holy Mother, the Church. But that history, these games, that period, are hopefully consigned to the past. The mold is broken and these two tenderly ironic portraits are both funeral eulogies and exorcisms. Tomorrow it will be spring, says Jean-Baptiste at the very end of the film: a period has ended.

By adopting another approach and other cinematographic methods, Pierre Perrault will come to the same conclusion about the death of, if we use the expression of our old friend General de Gaulle, the "Canadian Frenchman." LE REGNE DU) JOUR (THE REIGN OF TIME, Perrault, 1967), dealing with the same islanders of POUR LA SUITE DU MONDE (MOONTRAP, Perrault, 1963), will prove to Alexis, even though he doesn't want to admit it, that we can no longer define ourselves as French people in North America, that the "Great Book of Origins" talks about a past that is gone forever, and that we must find our own identity. First established fact: we are not French-Canadian nor Canadian French anymore; we are Québécois. [16]

But what does this really mean? What distinguishes and specifies us as Québécois? What is this new identity? Some of the very first fiction films of the sixties (especially the trilogy of Claude's: TAKE IT ALL, LE CHAT DANS LE SAC [THE CAT IN THE BAG, Groulx, 1964], ENTRE LA MER ET L'EAU DOUCE [DRIFTING UPSTREAM, Brault, 19671) have been spontaneously perceived as tentative answers to these questions. And even today there are cinephiles, historians, or filmmakers who consider that period as a "golden age," the privileged moment when our cinema was the most fiercely Québécois.

If it is true that the "Quiet Revolution" [17] was primarily perceived as a right to speak, boiling with ideas, and a proliferation of ideological currents crystallized around a movement (F.L.Q.), [18] around magazines (Parti-pris, [19] Socialisme québécois), [20] or even around simple slogans. All of these did not have deep and strong foundations, far from it, but they always found vehement spokespeople. If, first of all, the Quiet Revolution was that explosion, that furor for speech, these films were not its translation, its reflection, even less so when compared to two later films, UN PAYS SANS BONS SENS / WAKE UP, MES BONS AMIS! (Perrault, 1970) or FAUT ALLER PARMI LE MONDE POUR LE SAVOIR / IT IS NECESSARY TO BE AMONG THE PEOPLE OF THE WORLD TO KNOW THEM (F. Dansereau, 1971), which reflected the nationalist ideology, the coherent and structured organization of one of these ideological configurations.[21] No, these films were the instigators of this movement. They themselves completely embodied, in the rough outline of their shape and subject, that right to speak. Furthermore, the fact that they existed as feature films, in a context where they were not asked for nor wanted, was part of that furor for speech. Culturally, it was the emergence of Québécois cinema, literature, and songs that was interpreted as the sign that a Quiet Revolution was happening. And it is this particular connection, this equation, that caused a diffused awareness of the great Québécitude in the cinema of that period.

We find this equation at another level, between the situation of those who direct these films and those who evolve within them. The majority of the protagonists of this cinema are artists and intellectuals: the filmmaker in TAKE IT ALL, the free-lance journalist in LE CHAT DAMS LE SAC (THE CAT IN THE SACK), the poet in JUSQU' AU COEUR (RIGHT TO THE HEART, Lefebvre, 1978), the musicians or singers in ENTRE LA MER ET L'EAU DOUCE (DRIFTING UPSTREAM) and OU ÊTES-VOUS DONC? (WHERE DO YOU STAND?, Groulx, 1969), and the philosopher-sculptor in MON AMIE PIERRETTE (MY FRIEND PIERRETTE, Lefebvre, 1967). They have, like the filmmaker, chosen to express themselves through cultural means; they define themselves by their position within the cultural context.

It is a privileged position, of course, but as lived by these characters it is shown as being particularly uncomfortable, leading to a "troubled conscience." Consequently, they are related to the protagonists of that other cinema, the cinema of Lord, Patry, etc. It is a position that leads more towards isolation and rumination rather than towards action. Abel in IL NE FAUT PAS MOURIR POUR ÇA (DON'T LET IT KILL YOU, Lefebvre, 1967) would like to change the course of things, but the opposite happens; the revolutionary in LE RÉVOLUTIONNAIRE (Lefebvre, 1965) would like to change the world but he will never have any contact with it — he will never leave his entrenched camp and will die there; Claude in LE CHAT DANS LE SAC vainly seeks a platform — he will finally go to the country to think; the only one of the three characters in OU ÊTES-VOUS DONC? (WHERE DO YOU STAND?) who really has something to say will find no one to listen to him.

It is this paralysis, this isolation, the fact that everything is kept discreetly in the background that finally characterizes the "new Québécois." They still are exceptional beings, characters whose position within the culture gives them an acute sense of the immobility and the lassitude with which society reacts. They are somewhat dumbfounded beings who cannot communicate that awareness to the collectivity.

The cinema of that period, whether guilt-ridden because of its revolt or its inability to make itself heard, might be described as an anxious, tormented cinema that above all reflected the conflict between values that were at stake in Quebec society through the confusion of its characters and their crises of conscience. It was, in the full meaning of the expression, both individually and collectively, the cinema of an identity crisis. The cinema that follows will see the consolidation of this identity.

(Continued on page 2)