Ah the sixties: a time of existential angst, political turmoil, and cultural revolution. OK, so I was born in 1983…but it doesn’t mean I can’t dream. Of course, the ’60s were a seminal moment globally and cross-culturally: the sexual revolution took hold in the West while films and music began to experiment with form, and the strength of the student and labour movements engendered the protests of May ’68. But what was going on at home was much more specific and thought-provoking: the Quiet Revolution swept the province of Quebec (so called because it was not a revolution of violence, but rather one of social discourse). The formerly Catholic-based education and social systems in QuÃ©bec began to break down in favour of a more secular and open atmosphere ready for change after years of post-war industrialization and prosperity.
Gilles Groulx’ Le Chat dans le sac could not have come at a more relevant time, but the primary significance of this charming, intelligent, and formally courageous little film is that it remains as provocative, mysterious, and beautiful today as it ever was. The film follows a young couple: Claude (a 23-year-old Francophone aspiring journalist and intellectual) and Barbara (a 20-year-old Jewish drama student trying to get rid of the accent with which she speaks French) as their relationship slowly deteriorates due to any kind of little differences you could imagine: aesthetic, political, temperamental, whatever. In the vein of the groundbreaking formal style of Jean-Luc Godard (see: Vivre sa vie , Ã bout de souffle ), Le Chat dans le sac plays with time and flow, slicing scenes into jarring yet invigorating jump cuts, and using melancholic, echoing voice-overs to convey an extra-temporal narration of the characters’ musings of all sorts. At the heart of the film, however, is a remarkably contemporary question that twenty-to-thirtysomethings today will no doubt recognize: what am I going to do with my life?
Claude’s provocations are incessant and blunt: is “newspapering” (as he puts it) the right way to spread rebellion and, hopefully revolution? What should be done about the representation of Muslims in the Québec government? Do rights belong to races or individuals? It’s clear that Claude is aching for some radical social changes, but he can never quite articulate exactly what he wants or how he aims to achieve it. In the meantime, he belittles Barbara and they become visibly annoyed with one another while she attempts to get him interested in a Brecht play her drama school intends to perform. The hypocrisy here is unmissable: while Claude wrings his hands over the composition of some amorphous radical intellectual manifesto, his very own girlfriend is the victim of a subtle yet unmistakeably internalized patriarchal dismissiveness (I mean, for god’s sake, she’s reading and performing Brecht — hello! — and he’s all like, “Why don’t you care about politics?” Geez, Claude!) Eventually, Claude takes off to the countryside leaving Barbara alone in Montreal so he can be one with his thoughts; the physical distance is ultimately the catalyst of the breakdown of their troubled relationship, and the two part ways.
It’s difficult to overstate how charming this film is: in classic black and white, the characters eat croissants and smoke cigarettes in a Québec in political flux while a stunning jazz soundtrack accompanies their wanderings through the narrow, European alleyways of mid-century Montreal. But perhaps the film’s original point is skewed by a contemporary perspective: while Claude is certainly intended to be the “protagonist” of our story (despite the fact that the film’s opening title card claims it is a story about a couple), his overwhelmingly self-involved existential crisis reads reads a bit like the infantile entitlement of what we now recognize to be the Baby Boomers (the fictional Claude would be 73 today, a bit past that generation, but not much). To be fair, though, I can’t say to what extent a 1964 viewer would have been skeptical of Claude as a sympathetic protagonist, but there’s no doubt that character assessment is at least partially a historical problem. Let’s just say that not only was I not exactly fond of him, but I found myself wanting to slap him at least once or twice.
Aesthetically, you’ll not only recognize the cinematically formal signature as one that is deeply indebted to Godard, but you’ll also take note of that perpetual argument about the cyclical nature of style. Barbara and Claude would be right at home with les hipsters somewhere on Dundas and Ossington (she dons a black-and-white striped sailor shirt and a bangs-and-bob black haircut, while he’s incessantly protecting his eyes from his own cigarette smoke with a fabulous pair of Ray-Bans). As eye candy, the film is a pure joy to look at: the crowds, the streets, the smoke, and the jazz all amount to a highly luxe viewing experience. Perhaps, then, this is the real genius of the film: it deals with the very real stark impoverishment of experience during social and cultural revolutions (neither Claude nor Barbara are sure of themselves, sure of where and who they are, sure of what they want, etc.) and yet the mise-en-scéne is enough to fill their empty little hearts twice over. I hope my perspective doesn’t sound materialistic; I don’t mean to say that a pair of Ray-Bans can comfort you in a time of existential trial. What I mean is that when one looks around at the minutae of endlessly fascinating things present in a bustling and multi-faceted urban centre (like Montreal in the ’60s, or like Toronto in 2013), one’s personal problems become writ large as a kind of political-aesthetic conundrum that begs to be addressed, and this is exactly the kind of discourse that Groulx, Godard, and their contemporaries aimed to push forward.
The concluding excellent news is that you can watch Le Chat dans le sac (as well as many, many other films) for free on the National Film Board’s website. A stunningly sharp and poetic piece of Canadian history lives online, and you’d be doing yourself a disservice if you didn’t make the time to check it out.