Thursday, March 29, 2007

Le Chat Dans Le Sac


"The Canadians are like the Jews, they're continually examining their identity... Canadians have always understood that we have to go along with the United States to a certain extent. But even though article after article threatens us with the extinction of our identity, I don't think anybody in Canada seriously believes that we're going to become Americans. It's a curious kind of paranoia." --Leonard Cohen

With the advent of light-weight cameras and faster film, most every major national cinema saw the emergence of filmmakers who took to the streets to create more spontaneous forms of filmmaking. Whether referenced as Direct Cinema or Cinema Verite, most cinephiles are familiar with the films of the French, American, British, Polish and Czech New Waves. But what of the Canadians? What where they up to?

Starting Tuesday, the NWFF will be showing four films of the Canadian New Wave. Le Chat Dans Le Sac and Nobody Waved Goodbye from 1964, Entre La Mer Et L'Eau Douce [67] and A Married Couple [69]. As befits a country split between Anglo and French identity, two of the films are in English and two are in French.
With the exception of A Married Couple, the films were produced by the National Film Board. The NFB was created in 1939 by Parliament to "produce and distribute and to promote the production and distribution of films designed to interpret Canada to Canadians and to other nations." Prior to the 60's most films produced by the NFB tended to be documentaries, animations, educational movies, children's films and comic shorts with titles like Adventure in Newfoundland and Beaver Dam. Dramatic narratives tended to be social problem films on topics like immigration, mental illness and labor relations.
In a sense, both Le Chat Dans Le Sac and Nobody Waved Goodbye stem from this tradition. Gilles Groulx and Don Owen, the respective directors, were each assigned to make a half-hour educational film on disaffected youth; both jettisoned the purely documentary approach to produce a narrative feature about a self-absorbed young man and his girlfriend; both created pieces with a fresh, spontaneous style. Of the two films, however, Le Chat Dans Le Sac is the one that bears the closer kinship to the reflexivity of the New Wave.
Despite a few visual flourishes, Le Chat Dans Le Sac possesses neither the giddiness of Godard nor the charm of Truffaut. There is no nudity, no spontaneous outbursts of song and dance, no doing the Madison in crowded cafe's, no running through the Louvre, no ironic references to American products, no cameos by Bridget Bardot. There is, however, plenty of smoking, philosophizing, le musique Jazz and eating breakfast in sunglasses.
Most importantly, the film has a semi-documentary approach and confrontational style that draws one into a distinction between the film as observation and fiction. The most Godardian scene comes early when Claude, a 23-year old Quebecois with a slight whiff of Delon, introduces himself via his library. Holding up a succession of books, he presents a cavalcade of 60's revolutionary, anti-colonialist thought. The Negro Revolt by Louis Lomax, The Cuban Revolution by Claude Julien and The Wretched of The Earth by Frantz Fanon. Close-ups of newspaper clippings accentuate the Godardian incorporation of actuality.
In addition, his girlfriend, Barbara, references Anna Karina to the point where she points to a picture from Vivre sa Vie and asks, "Do I look like her?"
In a interesting way, Groulx's film has an angle over Godard. Whereas Godard's characters tend to be bourgeois rebels, the protagonist of Le Chat, by dint of being French-Canadian, is something of a colonial subject. Granted, Quebec was not Algeria, but it was a period in which Quebecers began seeking economic and political autonomy from a predominantly English government and social autonomy from a predominantly Catholic society.
Despite the political setting, the film is not a discourse on the Quiet Revolution, but a story about what it is to be young, gifted and Canadian. Claude fancies himself a man of action, but his actions mostly amount to reading the newspaper. Disliking society, he freely admits the world doesn't engage him. Although fitfully applying himself as a reporter, he seems more intent on submitting philosophical ramblings than journalism. As an endlessly patient editor tries to explain that news comes from people and not books, Claude holds a rolled paper in front of his face like a shield.
Ironically, it is his unabashedly middle-class girlfriend who engages herself in living. A student at the National Theatre, she pursues acting with a commitment that alienates him. Whenever she tries to discuss a play she's working on, he buries himself in the news. Later, in what has to be a classic illustration of a relationship-killing argument, he berates her for spending time on her make-up before coming to bed.
Ultimately, sensing his moment, Claude takes action. He moves 942 kilometers away to the countryside, in the winter, to brood among the snowdrifts while listening to Couperin. He keeps up with the news and Barbara gallantly pays him visits, trying to keep the relationship afloat.
If Claude elicits our sympathy more than our impatience, it is because his predicament parallels the director's. Gilles Groulx grew up in a large working-class family. After studying business he worked in an office, but quit the white collar grind to study philosophy. He also began making 8mm films and landed a job as a picture editor at the CBC. After directing a few shorts he was hired by the NFB in 1958.
Although Le Chat Dans Le Sac wasn't his first film, it was his first narrative feature and among the first auteurist efforts of the French-Canadian scene. Throughout his career and life, Groulx continued to exert a strong influence on filmmaking in Quebec.
Whatever the ramifications of Le Chat as a historical document, it can be enjoyed as a cultural artifact. A b&w slice of 1964 Montreal with references to Brecht, de Beauvoir and Monica Vitti.
Le Chat Dans Le Sac plays at NWFF
April 3-4, Tues-Wed at 7, 9pm (74 min.)

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