Living the manly dream

Feminism prevails in forest primeval

Published: Jul 31 2016, 01:01:am

Thursday, July 20, 1972.

LES MÂLES (The Men). Music by Stéphane Venne. Written, edited and directed by Gilles Carle. Running time: 113 minutes. Restricted entertainment. In French with English subtitles.
DURING THE PAST FEW years, while the much-discussed B.C. film industry has been lurching along in fits and starts, production in French Canada has moved into high gear. Most recent evidence of the Québécois vitality is writer-director Gilles Carle's sexy, saucy comedy Les Mâles.
    Carle's heroes are a pair of modern coureurs de bois. Émile Sainte-Marie (René Blouin) and Jean St. Pierre (Donald Pilon) have established themselves in a wilderness camp some 150 miles from the nearest town. Both are social drop-outs, Émile having given up his languid life as a student, and Jean his more robust career as a logger.
     When the film opens they have been in the woods for 553 days (calculated by daily readings from a botany book), and Émile is beginning to hallucinate. He sees girls, lovely naked girls, where there are none.
    Jean, eminently more practical than his friend (whom he calls "Poet"), makes  a logical suggestion. Why don’t they hike back to civilization and recruit an Eve for their primeval paradise?
    Carle must be joking. A National Film Board veteran, he is among the grand old men of the recent Canadian feature-film movement. His 1965 movie La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (The Happy Life of Léopold Z) was among the first of the Board's feature-length projects, and the first to become a popular success in Québec movie houses.
    Since then, of course, the Québec-based industry has taken off, gaining considerable international recognition for its product. Much of the credit for the French-Canadian success goes to Denis Héroux, who co-directed his first feature 11 years ago while still a student in Montreal.
     That film, Seul ou avec d’autres (Alone or with Others) was the first Canadian feature to play the Critics' Week at the Cannes Film Festival. Of course Héroux is best remembered, not for Critics' Week, but for being the first filmmaker to, in his own words, "undress a Québec girl in front of a camera."
     The girl was the wholesomely beautiful Danielle Ouimet, a former Miss Québec; the film was 1969's Valérie, and the result was a sudden rush of fleshy fantasies on the world film market bearing the made-in-Canada label.
    On the whole, skin flicks — dubbed "maple syrup porn" by the trade paper Variety — have been very good for the Québec movie industry, providing work for artists and technicians, producing readily marketable products and adding to the pool of domestic talent. It is from this background that a completely delightful entertainment like Les Mâles emerges, a film that consciously but affectionately spoofs the whole skin scene.
    Carle's men, Émile and Jean, are living a masculine dream, that of the self-supporting, self-reliant frontiersman. They live off the land, and when they feel the need of a woman, they set out to stalk one as if she were a moose.
    Their quarry turns out to be a perky little redhead named Dolores (Katerine Mousseau), who is a nurse and the daughter of a small town's combination mayor/police chief (J. Léo Gagnon). Though papa is an officious bumpkin, his police force proves more than a match for the unworldly pair. They have hardly had time to peep at his daughter’s sleeping form before an indignant posse closes in.
    Injury is piled upon insult as the woodsmen learn that the tabloid press refers to them as “ape men,” and the police expect to pin some mysterious unsolved murders on them. An escape, engineered by none other than their intended victim, is arranged.
     The ape men return to their trees, only to find themselves hallucinating once more.
    This time, though, it's not an hallucination. In their absence a naked female hippie has occupied their campsite. Her name is Rita Sauvage (Andrée Pelletier), and she wants only to stay in their pure, unpolluted wilderness.
    Carle, unlike his hapless heroes, knows exactly what he’s doing. Emulating the slightly phony look of the skin flicks — the woodsmen's wilderness looks more like a provincial park — he has reversed the stereotypes, leaving the men, rather than the woman, mooning after love.     
     Like Russ Meyer, he teases rather than titillates his audience. He sets up the film's major love-making scene with long, lingering shots of Rita's nude body.
    The girl puts off a smouldering conflict between the two men by deciding that she loves them both, and asking them both to make love to her. It is then that Carle turns his camera away, recording the heavy-breathing, bed-creaking consummations only through the reactions of the third partner, the one waiting outside on the porch.
    The film is Canadian, right down to Rita's robe of woven maple leaves. But like the robe, its nationalism is worn whimsically and without pretension. Brightly written and well acted, Les Mâles is this year’s [1972] Varsity Festival comic highlight.

The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1972. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.

Afterword: No film school freshman, Gilles Carles was in his mid-thirties when he made his first fictional feature (1965’s La vie heureuse de Léopold Z). In the words of the online Canadian Encyclopedia, he was “a key figure in the development of Québec cinema,” and “one of the most prolific and important talents in the Canadian film industry.” Carle drew upon his lived experience of Québec’s Quiet Revolution, and the opportunities for creative rebellion that existed within the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the Montreal-based National Film Board. Young critics could hardly miss the fact that “his films typically centre(d) on a beautiful, defiant woman, and are generally concerned with sexual themes and the lives of the working class.” Without ever using the term, Carle was a feminist. An artist attracted to beautiful women with fully-functioning brains, he introduced us to Andrée Pelletier, to Micheline Lanctôt (in 1972’s La vrai nature de Bernadette) and Carole Laure (in 1973’s La mort d’un bûcheron), all of whom went on to become writers and directors in their own right. I will have more to say about them in future Reeling Back postings. Diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in 1994, Gilles Carle died in 2009 at the age of 80.
    Les Mâles was the feature film debut for actress Andrée Pelletier, the daughter of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s then-secretary of state Gérard Pelletier. That her barefoot-all-over performance excited no controversy at all in their home province was a sign of the maturity Québec cinema was modelling for the rest of the country. Pelletier’s subsequent acting career has included starring roles in both English and French features. Her work has earned her five Genie Award nominations, including one for director John Juliani’s 1982 drama Latitude 55°. In the mid-1980s, she added screenwriting to her résumé, a credits list that includes director Michel Brault’s 1991 Les noces de papier (Paper Wedding). In 1990, Pelletier made her directorial debut, contributing a segment called Petit drame dans la vie d'une femme to the National Film Board anthology feature Five Feminist Minutes. She went on to direct the genre features Voodoo Dolls (1991) and Anchor Zone (1994).

See also: Director Gilles Carle directed his favourite leading lady Carole Laure for the seventh (and final) time in an epic adaptation of the Québec literary classic Marie Chapdelaine (1983).