On our way to movie, Bertie, who was again in a melancholy mood, told me the story of his grandmother’s death: how she uncharacteristically talked to herself the night before, and how she left her bedroom door half open before going to bed and never got up.
“As if she knew she was dying!” Bertie said.
Having little patience for soppy sentiments, I pointed out that such reasoning was flawed as it was based on selective memory: people do odd things all the time – only when something went wrong, we start to remember those bizarre moments and decide that they necessarily foreshadowed what was coming: “Probably your grandma often talked to herself or left her bedroom door half open before going to bed. Only your family hadn’t been paying attention”.
Arriving at downtown Silver Spring, I parked our car in front of a Panera Bread restaurant and walked with Bertie towards the movie theatre, AFI Silver. Walking across the American landscape is always an experience of walking across boundaries of colors, and nothing could better illustrate the point than this 3-minute stride: most customers behind the glass of Panera were either black or Hispanic; so were the clienteles of a Red Lobster and a K. G. Kitchen in the same strip mall. AFI Silver, a repertory cinema operated by American Film Institute, was tucked away quietly on a side street behind these busy family diners. Passing a black ticket collector and an Asian popcorn seller, we entered the auditorium. The audience had been exclusively white.
The film was the 1980 Les bons débarras (Good Riddance) from Quebec. It’s part of AFI’s summer program celebrating Canada’s 150th anniversary, Canada Now. The program purports to showcase new Canadian cinema, but almost half of the 26 films scheduled between July 7 and September 13 have more or less achieved “classics” status. Among them, there were Mon Oncle Antoine (1971), The Decline of the American Empire (1986), I’ve Heard the Mermaids Singing (1987), Léolo (1992), The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and My Winnipeg (2007). Les bons débarras not only belongs to this list, it is one of the oldest and the most critically claimed entries.
The story unfolds in the luxuriantly rugged landscape of Quebec’s Laurentian Upland, showing minuscule details of the banal existence of an ensemble of small town dwellers: firewood choppers, auto mechanics, avuncular policemen and wealthy resort homeowners who live in a world of their own, oblivious to the working-class people outside their fancy homes. The energy of the story comes from the underclass, in particular their obsessions with booze and sex. There are more than one’s fair share of scenes of drunk driving on characters’ way to their sexcapades.
Strangely, this is also a children’s film more than those Shirley Temple films not only because of its story, which evolves around its heroine, the 13-year-old Manon who lives with her unmarried mother Michelle, but also because of its sympathy to children’s moral indifference. In observing the adult’s world’s from a young girl’s eyes, the film never attempts at any condescending moral message for the young or the grown-up. The story itself is told in a freewheeling fashion with a grotesque ending, reminding one of those original Grimm Brothers’ stories in their sincere panache for macabre awkwardness and a disregard for refined narrative structure. The film has a childishness in the primitive sense.
Living in an isolated house outside a small town, Manon assists her mother Michelle and physically well-developed but mentally challenged uncle Guy carving a life out by chopping firewood and selling them to wealthy neighbors. Manon is tired of looking after Guy whose only hobby, besides getting drunk and starting fights in bars, is staring at Madame Viau-Vachon, their customer and rich neighbor who is constantly seen swimming in her indoor pool with the accompaniment of classical music. Manon also detests her mother’s avuncular boyfriend and the town’s policeman Maurice while taking a liking to the young auto mechanic Gaetan who occasionally assists her with her truancy and who seems to be unable to secure a date with Michelle in spite of all his enthusiastically playful groping and kissing. In difference to school, Manon is nevertheless a voracious reader, turning pages even when she was doing dishes. She is also a sharp-tongued commentator who has a tendency to boss her mother around. When she learned that her mother was impregnated by Maurice, Manon upgrades her antics first by running away from home, then falsefully accusing Maurice of sexual abuse and finally driving her uncle to suicide just for good measure. In the final scene of the film, we see the child happily embracing her mother in bed after successfully getting rid of her competitors for Michelle’s affection.
Originally released in 1980, Les bons débarras appeared on TIFF’s inaugural Canada Top Ten film list honoring “all time greats” in 1984 and subsequently in 1993 and 2005. The only other similarly well-received Canadian films at the time were Don Shebib’s Go’in Down the Road (1970), Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971) and Michel Brault’s Les orders (1974). Unlike the other three films, as Steve Gravesstock in his excellent essay for Cinemascope points out, Les bons débarras doesn’t tackle in an obvious way any big topic or theme perceived essential to Canadian identity or history. Genre-wise, it resembles a “coming of age” film, yet the protagonist Manon never did come of age and indeed she was very mature in her own way from the very beginning. It’s an offbeat film about offbeat characters in an offbeat locale doing offbeat things. If it has any ambition, it is its half-hearted intrusions into entertainment genres: the story of the film is pieced together with a string of visual vignettes either in the mode of physical comedy or in the mode of thriller: at one moment we see the idiot Guy comically struggling in his drunken stupor on the country road, trying his very best to bring his case of beer home, at another moment we see him maniacally driving with the young Manon, racing dangerously with a truck. In a similar fashion, at one moment we are amused by Manon’s antic when she stole wealthy Madame Viao-Vachone’s expensive bracelet and put it on her dog; at another moment the same Mano turns from a Robin Hood to a real bully, yelling at her child-like uncle and demanding him to kill himself, which he did. The film abandons temperamental consistence and moral compass, evoking contradictory and unresolved feelings in its audience. New York Times’s Janet Maslin in her 1981 review upon the American release of the film cogently calls it “a meandering movie with a curious kind of staying power”. This staying power derives from what this film is almost but not.
It’s easy to identify Manon as the film’s hero for the simple fact that the child is the most assertive character in the film who makes decision for herself and actively tries to achieve her goals, however impractical or even evil her means are. The adults are more than likely to accept their own places in life, by contrast.
But upon reflection, the film is “meandering” not just because of its lack of clear-cut narrative but also because of its lack of clear-cut relationship between its ensemble of characters who also share similar spotlights in their respective eccentricities.
When the film ended, I complained to Bertie that I still didn’t know what Guy’s exact relationship with Michelle who was seen hugging a naked Guy overnight – hardly a common thing between adult siblings; and in the film not once the word “brother” or “sister” spelt out. Indeed, one can easily impose different kinds of interpretations with the same cinematic materials. The fact that Michelle and Guy are siblings is more or less arbitrary. Similarly, while Manon is unquestionably Michelle’s daughter, her demand of love from her mother resembles that of a lover and has the element of eroticism, which is made evident with Manon’s facilitation of the erotic consummation in a dingy motel of he mother and the young mechanic Gaetan, who in his playful groping is as assertive as Manon self.
And there is Guy, the most mysterious character in the film. According to many critics, Les bons débarras is distinguished by its realism, in particular a realism reacting to a Quebecoise tradition of romanticising the “pristine” rural. I will call this realism “naturalism” which aims at a more unselective representation of a slice of life without moral judgement and which in its merging with ecological or biological determinism contradictorily comes close to mythology. In the film Guy is said to have become an idiot and alcoholic after an episode of meningitis, and his idiocy is accentuated by contradiction with the actor Germain Houde’s handsome face, athletic physique and a pair of expressive eyes full of longings. If half of the film revolves around Manon the Child’s game of love with her mother, the other half revolves around Guy the Idiot’s devotion of love to his object of desire, Madame Viau-Vachon. Such devotion is as pure as that of Little Mermaid’s love for the prince – in fact, in one scene we see a hiding Guy emerging from water like a merman, looking admirably at the Madame in complete silence. This is the love of the sacred for the profane. Guy is a village idiot in a religious sense. Those idiots permeate every single masterpiece of literature in the past.
The contradiction naturalism brings to realism is that in its material concreteness it lets go concrete identities of things and in turn “a slice of life”, as seen in Les bons débarras, turns into myth and achieves a certain degree of universality. Only such universality is unknown with the Quebec film’s relative obscurity.
As well-received as Les bons débarras by the critics, its impact has been extremely limited. When Marie-Jose Raymond and Claude Fournier, two members of the Élephant project which restored the film, asked the audience who had seen the film before, no one raised his hand. Raymond responded by saying how happy she was as this lack of impact justifies her restoration work, but such happiness had to be a bittersweet kind.
Bertie, with his carefree attitude, obviously enjoyed the film even more than I did. What I saw as odd in the film were completely natural to him.
“You are too analytical!” He said and then added: “Understanding is enjoyment, and enjoyment is feeling”.
With these words, we walked into the Panera Bread restaurant next door and treated ourselves with a heartful American meal.