Monday, March 4, 1974
KAMOURASKA. Written by an Anne Hébert based on her 1970 novel. Music by Maurice Leroux. Directed by Claude Jutra. Running time: 134 minutes. Restricted entertainment with the B.C. Classifier's warning: some nudity and sex scenes. In French with English subtitles.
SINCE THE MOMENT I first saw her, I've been in love with Geneviève Bujold.
I mention this because, for me, falling in love with actresses is not a normal thing. It's not sensible (nor professional), and it never happened with any of cinema’s various "it" girls, from Marilyn Monroe to Brigitte Bardot or Raquel Welch.
Mlle. Bujold is unique.
A magnificent actress, she has established herself as an international talent in a succession of powerful, difficult roles, among them St. Joan, Antigone, Anne Boleyn, Cassandra and Nora Helmer.
A sense of intelligent self-awareness — call it an inner fire — creates an aura of purpose and passion around her, and generates an electricity that allows her to dominate a moment, a scene or an entire picture.
Admittedly, Bujold has me completely in her power. I think the same can be said, though, of the various Canadian Film Awards juries who have awarded her three best acting Etrogs.
Most recently she was a winner for her outstanding performance in Kamouraska, Canada's first all-out epic film, and an historical romance to rank beside 1939's Gone With The Wind.
The comparison is valid, I think, on virtually every level. Both films are based on tales of tragic love among conquered peoples, and both were written by women.
In her 1936 novel, American Margaret Mitchell told the story of Scarlett O’Hara, a self-liberating Southern belle who survives the U.S. Civil War.
Kamouraska, published in 1970, is by Québec's Anne Hébert. Its focus is on Élisabeth D’Aulnières, a marriageable maiden in the French-speaking province of Lower Canada some 20 years before Confederation.
Both women are under intense social pressure, and their lives reflect the values of their societies. Both suffer unhappy marriages and both smoulder with passion for loves they cannot have.
Neither heroine is particularly virtuous. Author Mitchell called her Scarlett "a hussy." Last year  in a magazine interview Bujold described Élisabeth as ''the first evil bitch."
The difference in their stories lies in the type of pressures brought to bear upon them. Scarlett is, in a way, the more fortunate. She is living through times of cataclysmic social upheaval, and she is able to use her inborn dynamism to gain the economic power necessary to control her own destiny.
Élisabeth is not so lucky. Though she is the temperamental equal of her Southern sister, her emotional turmoil is not reflected in the settled society of post-conquest Québec.
Born into the proper bourgeoisie of Sorel, she is brought up in the repressed atmosphere of a church-dominated society. She is required to sing hymns, when her natural inclination is to go fishing with the village boys.
The only one with whom she can share her budding sexual curiosity is a serving girl named Aurélie (Suzie Baillargeon), a knowing wench with a bad reputation and self-proclaimed skills at witchcraft.
It is a society in which marriages are arranged. Thus Élisabeth's family accepts for her the proposal tendered by Antoine Tassy (Philippe Léotard), lord of a neighbouring estate, Kamouraska.
It is also a society in which the double standard is observed. After their marriage, Élisabeth must face the fact that Antoine is a womanizing drunkard with a tendency to go into near-catatonic depressions.
Once married, though, there is no way out. Her mother-in-law (Camille Bernard) advises her that life is a theatre in which the impression given is everything. When she separates from her husband, her aunts form a solid phalanx around her to protect her honour and reputation and, incidentally, to protect the family name against scandal.
Despite their watchfulness, resourceful Élisabeth manages to fall in love with her doctor, George Nelson (Richard Jordan), an expatriate American who works among the habitants. "Antoine is an evil man," she tells her stolid physician.
"Yes," Nelson agrees. "All three of us will burn in hell."
The situation is patently unfair. During their separation, Antoine womanizes ever more freely; Élisabeth is cloistered ever more closely. When her affair with the doctor becomes general knowledge, her unloving mate taunts her:
"I may be a scoundrel,” he says, "but you are damned." Married till death does them part, Élisabeth decides that Antoine must die.
Kamouraska is a tale told in flashback. It opens with a 40-year-old Élisabeth keeping vigil by the deathbed of her second husband Jérôme Holland (Marcel Cuvelier). Exhausted, she is given a sleeping powder, and gives herself up to fitful unconsciousness. The film’s story is her dream.
In its telling, director Claude Jutra, a Canadian Film Award winner for his 1971 feature Mon Oncle Antoine, pulls out all the stops to produce a film that has the look and feel of a major international production. Thus the comparison to the above-named American blockbuster stands on a technical level as well.
Jutra, however, had the advantage over Gone With the Wind's various directors in that he collaborated with the novelist to produce a screenplay, thus insuring a consistent artistic vision. He has managed to produce his epic without sacrificing any of the intimacy, or any of the powerful but distant emotions. The result is a picture of a soul-stifling society that is both real and immediate.
He has brought together a superb cast, an ensemble that provides solid support for Bujold's unfailingly fine work. The skills of his technical crew were recognized when the CFA proclaimed Jutra's film winner of a special award for "all-around excellence."
Much remains to be said about this striking, fine film. Space, unfortunately, prohibits any kind of discussion of Jutra's use of counterpoint imagery, elements in the elder Élisabeth's fever dream.
One thing must be said, though: if you see no other film this year, see Kamouraska.
* * *Do Canadian films sell? According to Don Barnes, the Dunbar theatre manager, business at the Dunbar over the past weekend was "better than it has been in 20 years." Although the final figures have yet to be checked, Barnes thinks that his Kamouraska opening has set a house record.
The above is a restored version of a Province review by Michael Walsh originally published in 1974. For additional information on this archived material, please visit my FAQ.
Afterword: It’s hard to know when “full disclosure” becomes TMI (too much information). Yes, I really liked Geneviève Bujold. Whether or not the love letter that preceded my favourable review of Kamouraska was entirely helpful to my readers is open to debate. It might have been more helpful for me to have named the movies in which she played those “powerful, difficult roles, among them St. Joan (in director George Schaefer’s 1967 Hallmark Hall of Fame telefilm of G.B. Shaw’s St. Joan), Antigone (in Gerald Freeman’s 1974 Great Perfomances adaptation of Jean Anouilh’s Antigone, Anne Boleyn (in Charles Jarrot’s 1969 epic Anne of the Thousand Days), Cassandra (in Michael Cacoyannis’s 1971 feature The Trojan Women) and Nora Helmer (in Paul Almond’s 1966 CBC-TV Festival production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House).
Then there’s the matter of Canadian Film Award-winning director Claude Jutra. During his 30-plus years behind the camera, he became an industry icon. In a January 2000 review of Jim Leach’s book Claude Jutra: Filmmaker, Robert Fulford said he was “probably the most talented of all Canadian film directors,” going on to quote critic Martin Knelman’s remark that Jutra had been in "the embarrassing position of being English Canada's favourite Québec filmmaker.” Jutra, who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, died in November 1986, an apparent suicide. He was 56.
His peers honoured his name, attaching it to Québec Cinéma's annual awards gala, and to the Canadian Screen Award for Best First Feature Film. Streets and parks in some six Québec municipalities were named for him. That all changed in February 2017, on the day that film historian Yves Lever published a biography of Jutra that alleged that during his most creative years he’d been a practicing pedophile, with a preference for teenaged boys. The name “Jutra” suddenly lost its lustre, and there was a rush to rename all those places and things that bore it. Except, of course, the movies, artifacts that stand on their own as products of the collaborative art that is cinema.
Jutra in English: In 1981, Claude Jutra directed his first English-languague theatrical feature, an adaptation of the Margaret Atwood novel Surfacing. Also included in the Reeling Back archive is his shot-in-Vancouver adult comedy By Design (1982).
Oh, Canada: The four Great White Northern features include in today’s Reeling Back package are director Peter Krasny’s Christina, Claude Jutra’s Kamouraska, Denys Arcand’s Rejeanne Padovani and John Wright’s The Visitor.
Also Canada aussi: Among the other Canadian films released in 1974 currently posted to the Reeling Back archive are director Claude Fournier’s Alien Thunder, Ted Kotcheff’s The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, Jean-Claude Lord’s Bingo, Bob Clark’s Black Christmas, Howard Alk’s Janis, Frank Vitale’s Montreal Main, Michel Brault’s Les Ordres, Philip Kaufman’s The White Dawn, John Howe’s Why Rock the Boat? and Jack Darcus’s The Wolfpen Principle.