If there’s one definitive conclusion that could be reached by observing the interactions of people from Toronto and Montreal, it’s that we here in Canada love us a good old-fashioned friendly rivalry. Most would be quick to point to hockey as the main source of antagonism – somewhere along the line the number of Stanley Cups eclipsed all else as the main indicator of provincial superiority.
What is often forgotten however is that the root of this not-always-so-friendly competition lie in our country’s history of bilingualism. The evolution and historical tradition of “nos deux langues officielles” has been strained to say the least, and a hot topic for observation. It should come as no surprise then, that bilingual tensions form the basis of many prominent Canadian films. In this newest edition of the At Home Film Festival, TFS examines three films that made landmark contributions to the discussion of bilingual issues, and were recognized with a Genie Award nomination.
Maurice Richard (The Rocket) : To the casual hockey fan, The Rocket may seem like a love letter to one of the greatest players to ever wear a Canadiens uniform; an inspirational story, along the same lines as Miracle. But as it so often does in Canada, hockey takes on a greater meaning, as Charles Biname’s stirring biopic demonstrates. The film follows Maurice Richard’s career to its apex, starting with his teenage years, and culminating in his suspension during the 1954 season, and the ensuing Richard Riots.
Make no mistake, this is ostensibly a film about hockey. However, beneath the frozen surface is a film that takes a long hard look at the class divisions that arose around one man’s rise to greatness. The foregrounded action on the ice is but a microcosm for the greater struggle between Anglophone minority and predominantly Franocphone speakers in post-war Montreal.
In the years between the two wars, the French-speaking Quebecers occupied the lower-class under an English-speaking elite who controlled most of the city’s economy. Understandably, this led to class resentment (and Francophone alienation that would eventually fuel the Quiet Revolution and separatist sentiments of the late 60s). Enter Maurice Richard (wonderfully portrayed by Roy Dupuis), a man as polarizing in politics as he was mesmerizing on the ice.
The film’s focus is less on Maurice’s talent than it is on a Frenchman’s entrance into an Englishman’s game, and in this regard it is effective and provocative. Sure, broken ankles and bloody knuckles are minor bumps on the road to greatness, but The Rocket is at its best when it’s tackling tough issues. Even as Maurice earns the admiration of many Montrealers, it is neve quite clear whom they care about: the player or the man. One of the film’s most powerful scenes finds a broken, battered Richard weeping in the locker room after his (Anglophone) owner congratulates him on scoring a memorable goal, ignoring his bloody face. It is these moments that evoke the audience’s pathos, and make The Rocket a moving film. Standout performances come from Dupuis, and also Stephen McHattie, who shines in a role tailor-made for him as Canadiens’ coach Dick Irvin.
Bon Cop Bad Cop : When a dead body is found straddling the Quebec-Ontario border, both provinces’ police forces must work together to solve the murder. With a premise like that, it should come as no surprise that this film seeks to capitalize on many of these two provinces’ stereotypes and historical moments, including (but not limited to): Montreal’s terrible roads (and worse drivers); Toronto’s stiff, no-fun attitude, NHL draft busts, and yes, even an allusion to Charles de Gaulle’s “Vivre le Quebec Libre” speech. While many would be tempted to qualify the humour as gimmicky, the film deserves credit for presenting these stereotypes and its two protagonists with a patriotic pride. In the process, it pokes fun at the myriad inferiority/superiority complexes that are created as these provinces jockey for supremacy over the other.
Colm Feore plays a stiff, upright, no-nonsense Toronto cop, while Patrick Huard plays the more free-wheeling, rule bending Montreal officer. Their on-screen chemistry is a joy to watch, and helps the film through some of its more bizarre moments, including a dinner invitation that ends in Huard’s character having sex with Feore’s sister while she professes her support for Quebec’s separatism. Directed by Quebecer Eric Canuel, and written by Huard, the film’s distinct style flows through its dialogue, rapidly switching between French and English, laced with double-entendres. But behind the quick-witted joual humour and marijuana jokes is an uplifting affirmation of Canada’s multiculturalism; our natural ability to put ethnic differences aside in pursuit of the common good.
Pontypool : Putting aside the bilingual issues for a moment, this writer would like to make it known that he has distaste for the horror genre in general. The main problem with most modern-day horror films is that they eschew atmosphere-building and dread for repetition and gore. The zombies in Resident Evil for example fail to terrify because they ooze out of every pore, occupying the screen at all times. Imagine living in a world overrun with zombies – you’d find a half dozen on your way to the bus stop. Forget fright, the zombies and severed limbs have become routine; they’re just another irritating, unwanted part of your day, like dental appointments, or having to talk to someone on the subway.
Then along comes a film like Pontypool (written by Tony Burgess), reminding us of what it means to really dread. The film tells the story of Grant Mazzy (played to gravelly perfection by Stephen McHattie – we love him here at TFS, in case you couldn’t tell), a shock jock radio announcer, who comes to to the small town of Pontypool, Ontario only to find his radio station besieged a zombie virus that infects those who abuse language. The film makes a tongue-in-cheek distinction between English, the supposed language of the mindless, the greedy, and the ravenous; and French, the language of love that can resolve all differences. Though the horror of the film is very real, there is no forgetting the premise that abuse of the English language can be fought with the sophistication of French, a fact which keeps a smile on your face throughout in spite of the danger.
The first two acts are a meticulous exercise in atmosphere-building. The radio station setting contributes a great deal to the ominous tone of the film, trapping the audience in a state of uninformed uncertainty even as Grant receives grisly tidings from his news reporters in the field. Going back to the point made earlier, the film demonstrates that what you hear can be infinitely more terrifying than what you can see. The zombies loom as an ever-present threat, but the film withholds them until the last possible moment, so when the zombies finally do appear in the flesh (however rotten), it is a truly scary experience . In this way, Pontypool achieves what other horror films have yet to understand: when it comes to zombies, less is more.
So grab these three Genie gems from your local video store and take an evening to investigate the French-English issue in Canada as depicted very artfully in our cinema.