CANADIAN RETROSPECTIVE: THE FILMS OF MICHEL BRAULT Rating: NNNN
Michel Brault needn't worry about his place in Canadian film history. It's secure, if only for his cinematography in two of the country's most acclaimed and beautifully shot films - Les Bons Débarras (this year's TIFF Canadian Open Vault selection) and Mon Oncle Antoine.
But a couple of Brault's own films deserve as much attention. One of them, Pour La Suite Du Monde, is an acknowledged masterpiece, easily one of the best documentaries to come out of this country.
This long-overdue TIFF retrospective, which coincides with the launch of a new book about Brault by André Loiselle, collects his major works and a few lesser-known gems that deserve a look. Together they add up to an invaluable document about the emerging Quebecois identity.
Brault joined the NFB in 1956 and quietly set about changing the rules. One of his first documentary shorts there, 1958's Les Raquetteurs (co-directed with Gilles Groulx), signalled a new approach to the genre that even made the cinéma vérité crowd in Europe sit up, drink their espressos and take notice.
Nominally a look at the various participants in a snowshoeing convention, the film (which screens Friday, September 14, 6:45 pm at the Varsity 7) captures his subjects in a fascinating way.
It's filmed using a lively hand-held camera technique and has no narrator to shape what we're seeing. Brault shows an almost anthropological interest in the snowshoers' rituals, lingering on unexpected moments - handshakes that go on far too long, upset competitors and beauty queens (with a bunch of men commenting on the winner's attractiveness). It's a lovely film bursting with life.
Brault uses that same technique in the thrilling 1961 short La Lutte (co-directed by Marcel Carrière, Claude Fournier and Claude Jutra). On the surface it's about professional wrestlers at the Montreal Forum, but it's just as much about the mixed crowd, which includes a genteel bird-like woman who daintily brings out her glasses to read the program, an Asian boy who scores an autograph and a group of louts who break out in their own fight (Wednesday, September 12, 6:45 pm, Varsity 7).
Brault's first move into fiction was Geneviève (Saturday, September 15, 6:45 pm, Varsity 7), a touching 1964 half-hour short starring a then-unknown Geneviève Bujold (whom he would later work with on several films) as a teenager who flirts with her friend's boyfriend at Quebec's Carnival. It's a moody, mysterious film that leaves much unspoken. Brault's camera suggests a lot about the characters' psychological motivations, especially during a pair of contrasting toboggan rides.
Entre La Mer Et L?Eau Douce (1967)
The director's later collaboration with the actor, 1967's Entre La Mer Et L'Eau Douce (screened after La Lutte), feels like a Quebecois Goin' Down The Road. Small-town singer/songwriter Claude (played by real-life musician Claude Gauthier) travels to the big bad city, Montreal, where he shacks up with his brother (Paul Gauthier), falls in love with a restaurant server (Bujold) and works at one dead-end job after another until his life changes during a talent competition.
The subtle script, penned by a group that includes Brault, Denys Arcand and Claude Jutra, takes a clear-eyed look at the era's social conditions. That's Brault's documentary eye showing. Look for telling observations about immigrant workers, natives and separatism.
Full of the same nostalgia as Gauthier's simple ballads, the film is a love story about regret and change. The city can be dehumanizing, but rural life has changed, too.
L?Acadie, L?Acadie?!? (1971)
That idea of one world being replaced by another comes across powerfully and with great emotional force in L'Acadie, L'Acadie?!? (Saturday, September 15, 12:15 pm, Varsity 7), Brault and Pierre Perrault's look at francophone students at Moncton University protesting for their linguistic rights.
Emboldened by Quebec's separatist language changes, hundreds of New Brunswick francophone students, many of them from Acadian backgrounds, butt up against city and school officials. Later, they travel to small Acadian villages and interview old-time Acadians to preserve a dying culture.
Throughout, Brault's camera seems to be at the right place at the right time, and there's a beautiful use of folk songs to create mood and atmosphere. The film's conclusion is devastating.
Brault's most acclaimed films round out the series. His 1963 Pour La Suite Du Monde (Friday, September 14, 6:45 pm, Varsity 7) is justly famous for its fascinating look at the centuries-old tradition of whale-trapping in the tiny community of Ile-aux-Coudres.
Fifty years after the last whale hunt, a new generation of men want to resurrect the practice, which involves plunging hundreds of wooden stakes into the ocean floor to build a weir to trap the mysterious creatures.
Besides suspense - will they capture a whale? - the film offers a fascinating glimpse of different generations and, more profoundly, probes the idea of our meaning and purpose on earth. Brault captures all the moments, big and small, in a film that would make Melville proud.
Les Ordres (1974)
Brault's other well-known film, 1974's Les Orders (Thursday, September 13, 7 pm, Cumberland 2), won the director's prize at Cannes and today feels simultaneously very relevant and dated. It's a docudrama inspired by the experiences of 50 of the hundreds of people imprisoned and interrogated after the October Crisis, when Trudeau instituted the War Measures Act.
We see a half-dozen people abruptly picked up by police, torn from their families, imprisoned and interrogated but never told why they're being held. The detainees are psychologically tortured and broken down.
Brault's decision to shift between black-and-white and colour doesn't add much, and there's not much complexity to the political argument. As a work of art, it does not hold up to similar films of the era by, say, Costa-Gavras.
But, of course, the paranoia and state-sanctioned war on suspected terrorists continues today.