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This is the second post in a two-post series on Denys Arcard (you’ll need to refer to the first post for the context of what follows. Click here for the first post: Denys Arcand: A quick Québec film industry backgrounder — Post 1 of 2
Arcand is quite significant on four fronts:
- He is the most important, “still-surviving” influential “second-era” filmmaker to have made the transition into a third-era filmmaker,
- Like other former second-era filmmakers, he has for the most part abandoned the ideals of the second-era when making third-era films (of which his third-era films have been his most successful),
- Both his second and third-era films are extremely well-known, influential, and have marked Québec’s and Montréwood’s film industry forever.
- [Note: when I refer to the expression Montréwood, it denotes a much more “Montréal” specific phenomena related to Québec’s pop-culture, rather than a province-wide activity]
- He is probably Québec’s greatest filmmaker of all time.
Québec’s film industry really didn’t take off until the beginning of the second era, and Arcand was born at the right moment to be of the right age when he became fully engaged as a filmmaker (from a nationalist and age-bracket point-of-view). His first films came out in the early 1960s, and he created, or participated in the creation of 10 major films from the 1960’s until the first referendum in 1980.
Of these second-era ultra-nationalistic films, a few have marked Arcand’s place in history (they were films kept the ball of nationalist momentum rolling, or at least they gave the ball a few good, hard spins). “On est au coton” from 1970 is one of the best known.
“On est au coton” was actually censored by the National Film Board based because it did not meet Board policy standards (The NFB had the authority to censor it because it was a private matter owing to the fact that they produced it – not because of government censorship [we’re not that kind of country, after all]). I think uncensored versions of it only began to be sold on the open market during the last 10 or 15 years. The film’s theme was about francophone labourers of the 1950’s, working under appalling conditions in Québec’s Anglophone-managed textile industry (I’m sure you can infer the spin Arcand took with this film). The film also included two members of the FLQ (a Québec terrorist organization from the late 60’s / early 70’s) calling for armed revolution. On one hand, it was held up as a lightning rod for those calling for sovereignty. On the other hand, others decried that it twisted reality by sensationalizing issues which were not reflective of the reality for the majority. Regardless, it was a long time ago (45 years ago), and I believe it’s good for everyone to be fully aware of film and the context of the time. But it was a matter for another generation and now for the history books – I think most people recognize that. The film has been made available for free online viewing on National Film Board’s website at the following address: https://www.onf.ca/film/on_est_au_coton/.
It’s interesting to note that On est au coton gave rise to an expression commonly used in modern Québec French: “Être au coton” means “to be at one’s wits end”
Other well-known Arcand films, from Québec second film era, were Québec: Duplessis et après (regarding the politics of the Quiet Revolution), and Le Confort de l’indifférence, which mourned the loss of the “nationalist dream” following the 1980 referendum. For many, this latter film signalled the end of Québec’s second–era of films.
From the 1980s onwards, Denys Arcand, like most other major filmmakers, abandoned the themes of second-era films and concentrated on populist, modern and all-inclusive films with global appeal.
After the 1980 referendum and after his film Le Confort de l’indifférence, I think Arcand felt there was no more point in creating films which created ideological divisions in society, or which had nationalist aspirations — and he laid that aspect of his filmmaking to rest. Even if one wanted to make a point, one could still do it in an inclusive manner — just as any family dispute can be discussed without making individual family members feel isolated or rejected. In passing, this is also why I do not ascribe to the notion that nationalistic debates are “tribalistic” in nature (at least in our context in Canada), because tribalism denotes a “them and us” connotation – whereas I’m of the mindset that we’re all in this together, that it’s a family affair, and that it is to be discussed in this latter context.
In an interesting comparison, just as Denys Arcand chose to make Le Confort de l’indifférence to signify the end of second-era films, Pierre Falardeau chose to make Elvis Gratton to signify the end of second-era films, and to then move on with life (see the post on Elvis Gratton).
It was the mid 1980s transition towards third-era films which really saw Arcand’s artistic genius and abilities take flight. I think it is owing to the fact that he liberated himself (and his movies) from second-era constraints that he was able to finally produce works which found universal appeal. His subsequent success was phenomenal.
I’ll briefly mention some of his most successful third-era films. But I’ll provide you with Wikipedia links if you want more information.
Jésus de Montréal (1989) won the Jury award at Cannes and an Oscar.
Other notable information: Denys Arcand also has made many short films. He has been decorated with Canada’s, Québec’s and even France’s highest awards. He is highly sought after for interviews, and been the invitee on many of Montréwood’s most high profile talk shows. His works and life are also the subject of intense study at university and in academic circles. In essence, he incarnates Québec cinema on many levels, and has set the bar for generations to come.
If you’re learning French, I’d recommend taking in some of the above-mentioned films. Not only will they provide you with an interesting way to practice your French, but they will provide you invaluable cultural context.
Related post: Montréwood Movies
I’m actually in Montréal right now. While I’m here for the next few days, I’ll do my best to find time to hash out a few posts between my errands.
This will be a 2-part series on Denys Arcard and his place in Québec’s film industry and his role in helping to shape Québec’s modern society.
- Post 1 (this post) will offer you a general backgrounder which gives you the context for Denys Arcand’s place in Québec’s history of film making.
- Post 2 will cover his films, spanning two eras of cinema.
Québec’s and Montréwood’s film industry has a history unique from any other film in industry.
In a nutshell, Québec’s film industry is comprised of three general eras:
- The First Era: The pre-1960, Catholic Church controlled era, characterized by the Catholic church’s control and dominance over the industry (children under 16 were not even allowed to watch movies until 1961),
- The Second Era: the post-Catholic, Secularized Nationalist Era which lasted until just after 1980. Films in this era often took on nationalist subjects and overtures (very much towards sovereignty). Directors of this era very much embodied the ideals of Québec nationalism
- The Third Era: the International (and Post-Nationalist) Era from the early 1980s until present.
The above underlined “titles” I attribute to these eras are not formally recognized names, but from my vantage-point, I would argue they are fairly accurate descriptions of the eras.
Everything that characterizes Québec film can be said to relate to, or at least stem from one of these three eras. But what is most important to realize is that these eras were lead and carried by many of the film-makers themselves (rather than the other way around – which is a unique characteristic of Québec cinema… whereas other filmmakers elsewhere in the world tend to try to “fit the already-establish mould”).
Québec filmmakers of the first-era have all passed away.
The most influential, celebrated and well-known filmmakers & directors of the second era, for the most part, have also passed away. They included Pierre Falardeau (the creator of Elvis Graton which we saw in the last post), Claude Jutra, and Gilles Carle.
Of the big film producer names from the second-era, only a very small handful remain, one of whom is Denys Arcand (who also happens to be the biggest of them all). Because of the nationalist overtures of second-era filmmakers, they played a key role in crystalizing Québec’s post-Grande noirceur self-awareness and coming of age. They have profoundly marked Québec – and helping to shape the collective psyche to modern Québec’s society.
Filmmakers of the third era have come and gone since the early 1980s, and have achieved success on all ends of the spectrum (much like any modern film industry with a global outlook and global reach). The third-era films are not political (at least most are not), they have wide appeal in Québec , as well as elsewhere in Canada and the world, and they fit the mould of a globalized industry, accessible to all via the Internet, international marketing and international film festivals.
The next post will specifically look at Denys Arcand from the perspective of how he fits into the above.