Post-Paradigm Canada: Looking Down on America
Two movies from my Archive span the period from 1968 through the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Each of them employs the Forest Gump technique in its own way, setting its foreground action against the background of real historical events. The first of these is Trudeau (2002), which puts a microscope on the dynamics of the worldwide cultural revolution that erupted in that time.
This biographical film turns on the year 1968 when Pierre Trudeau becomes Prime Minister of Canada. There are flashbacks to 1967 and his decision to run for office. His cause célébre is a united Canada against the separatists in Quebec. Handlers liken him to Bobby Kennedy and the film employs cute techniques to draw parallels between his popularity and that of the Beatles. This is the beginning of “Trudeaumania.” After the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, there are fears for Trudeau’s safety. He meets young Margaret Sinclair on a trip to Tahiti. After he becomes PM, he telephones her on a trip to her hometown of Vancouver.
There is a jump to 1970 and Pierre is mired in separatist politics. Margaret moves to Montreal and gives him a call. They resume their romance. The film mixes its time sequences crazily, putting the first Moon landing in the middle of 1970 (actually 1969). If this film is to be taken at face value, the central crisis of Trudeau’s career was the kidnapping of government officials by Quebec separatists. After intense deliberations in the precincts of the government, the officials are found dead. There is much talk of the politics of terrorism. The romance with Margaret continues through the crisis and at the end of it the couple marries in an intimate ceremony. It’s a Charles and Diana situation. A montage gives fragmentary details of the breakup of the marriage. Margaret has produced three children by Pierre but has gone to the papers to express her dissatisfaction with being a “baby machine” or being chastised for her pot smoking.
The film doubles back to show the slow process of dissolution as Margaret finds she is unsuited for her role and unhappy in her marriage. A musical sequence showing them on holiday trying to save their marriage is accompanied by a Leonard Cohen song. In 1977, Margaret runs off to Toronto to party with the Rolling Stones, causing an irrevocable rift. The marriage ends; Pierre gets the kids. Margaret writes a book that damages Pierre politically. In the election of 1979, his Liberal campaign fails and he makes a brave and clever concession speech. A divorce is amicably crafted. Margaret gets no spousal support. She confides to Pierre on the courthouse steps that she just can’t find it in herself to do what is expected of her.
The new government falls apart and Trudeau is reluctantly brought back to the center of the political stage. Margaret’s life is going badly and Pierre is disinclined to help her. In 1980 Trudeau is swept back to power. The politics of the time still revolve around the separatist issues in Quebec and entrenched contentions between the provinces. There is a hotly debated referendum on whether the country should be divided. The people vote no. The final long episode in this three and a half hour movie involves the legislative wrangling over the creation of a Canadian Constitution. In the end, it is passed and accepted by the Queen. Pierre and Margaret meet once again and have a nice talk. The film concludes with a speech from the real Trudeau (not quite so elegant as the actor who plays the part) in which he reiterates the central theme: the assertion of reason over passion. This is apparently a Nova Scotia production. It was a four-hour TV mini-series.
I am going to give the final platform in this segment to just one French-Canadian filmmaker, Denys Arcand, and the film that has been called his masterpiece. He is, to my mind, very French and very Canadian. The French strain can be seen most obviously in the high tolerance for intellectual discourse almost entirely absent from Hollywood movies. The Canadian sensibility is seen in an ambivalent attitude toward the United States. It is a mixture of cultural envy and defensive superiority. Because I am half Canadian, half American, and partly French, I am minimally familiar with the territory.
In the closing years of the 20th century, Arcand began a canon of films, including The Decline of the American Empire (1986), and Jesus in Montreal (1990), each of which earned him Academy Award nominations. I liked to these two films only moderately. After the turning of the millennium, his preoccupation with the shifting patterns of culture produced his masterpiece, The Barbarian Invasions (2003), set in Montréal.
There is a surfeit of contemporary trash talk in this one, though it must be admitted that it is the language of its time and place. Furthermore, it is an index of the worldwide lifting of repressions that accompanied the decline of religion and the suspension of civility that is the hallmark of this epoch. Be warned that there is some very frank sexual dialogue. For those who do not enjoy this idiom, I have attempted to capture the themes of this important film without its seasoning of smut. It’s not that talk of sex is a bad thing in itself; it’s the smirking, post-adolescent quality of it in the mouths of otherwise mature adults that drags this film down a notch or two.
The Barbarian Invasions (2003) – French Canadian
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, this is a very fine piece of work, produced in Québec. It opens with a phone call between a mother and son with news that the father is dying in a hospital in Montreal. The son is reluctant to leave his business interests in London but flies with his wife in his private jet to his father’s bedside. The patient is receiving only average care and the son uses his financial resources to improve his garrulous father’s situation though there is little affection between them. The mother is separated from the former college professor and treats his history of philandering with something approaching humor. The son flies his father to America for tests, and the results are disheartening. They return to Montreal where the family argues vehemently over the dying man’s poor record of fatherhood.
The mother convinces the young man that despite all this he owes it to his father to provide the opportunity for a dignified and comfortable death. The frail patient begins to soften as friends, old mistresses, and family gather around him. Father and son continue to fight. In the middle of all this, a hospital television screen runs footage of the second plane slamming into the World Trade Center. A commentator observes that while this is not the worst disaster on American soil, 50,000 died at Gettysburg, it is unique in that it “struck at the heart of the empire.” Other times, he says, the empire (American dominance) has succeeded in keeping the barbarians outside its borders. The phenomenon of 9/11, he continues, may be looked back on as the beginning of the “barbarian invasions.” There is a not-so-subtle implication here that 9/11 is a wake-up call to Western Civilization (see Zizek).*
What is most timely and interesting in this film is that the post-9/11 awakening is expressed in the lives and loves of hedonistic and self-absorbed citizens of Civilization who are mostly distracted by their own dramas. As his friends and lovers gather in his room, the old professor is magically transformed into an exuberant, funny, poignant, and wise old man; a sort of modern Socrates. The conversation around his bedside becomes stimulating, humorous, bawdy, and life-affirming. One of his former mistresses enlists her daughter, an addict, to supply heroin to ease the dying man’s discomfort. As father and son travel together in an ambulance for tests, there are scenes of fall colors and geese on the wing. Now there is a strange interlude in which the son’s wife, an art dealer, is called upon by Catholic authorities to appraise a trove of religious artifacts in storage after the collapse of Catholicism in Montreal. It happened suddenly in 1966. She determines that these objects have no value on the world market.
The professor laments to his young heroin provider that he has done nothing in his life to prevent the atrocities of his times. He reflects on the litany of massacres in the history of past generations. The son pays some students to visit his father and tell him they valued his teachings. There is a funny scene where the professor and his friends sit and reminisce on all the old “isms” they embraced in their lives (including Marxism, separatism, situationism and deconstructionism). They agree that the only one of any substance is “cretinism.” They have all gathered at a cottage by a lake to say their final farewells to the professor. They talk and laugh and experience a great deal of affection for one another. Father and son are reconciled and declare their mutual love. Truly this young man has done a magnificent service for his father. In the end, the young heroin provider administers a fatal dose to the old man as each of his clique say their last farewells. Almost every scene in this movie puts a microscope on the post-9/11 world. It ends with the son on an airplane looking out the window on the past as his wife leans on his shoulder and whispers, “I love you.” There is a French song over the end credits. On the DVD cover, the movie is hyped as “A funny look at all the things that invade our lives.” See also The Decline of the American Empire (1986).