[Originally published in Movietone News 43, September 1975]
by Ken Eisler
In the city of Vancouver, a foreign-film addict enjoys two major connections, the Pacific Cinémathèque (downtown) and the University of British Columbia’s Cinema 16 series (on campus). Both sources dry up during the summer, but fortunately in mid-July along comes Don Barnes’ annual International Film Festival to stave off withdrawal symptoms.
The festival was held this year at the Dunbar Theatre with two-a-night features ranging from amusing pap like Berri’s Le Sex Shop to “political” cinema from Italy such as Lulu the Tool and Love and Anarchy. Political themes were more heavily represented than usual this summer, in fact, with Hearts and Minds treating U.S. involvement in Vietnam and two French-Canadian features set in the troubled province of Quebec.
I didn’t see Bingo, a fiction film about a group of young terrorists, but Michel Brault’s sober, powerful Les Ordres is one of three festival films I wouldn’t mind looking at again if they return for a regular run during the year.
Les Ordres couples aesthetic restraint with moral passion in a peculiarly potent blend that revived memories of L’Acadie, I’Acadie, a two-hour cinéma-vérité study co-directed by Brault with Pierre Perrault and shown uncut four years ago on CBC television. This scrupulously detailed documentary, photographed by Brault in 16mm black-and-white, explored an issue which, on the face of it, was unlikely to keep a new arrival in the somewhat insular province of British Columbia glued to a TV set for such a long, talky time (University of Moncton students protesting lack of French-language rights in New Brunswick, yet I was in tears when it ended.
The events of Les Ordres seem equally remote now—the October 1970 “crisis” triggered in Quebec by the kidnapping of a British trade commissioner and a government labor minister. But the issue is basically the same: human dignity.
In both cases, we watch an act of violation. A government takes away the civil liberties of some of its ordinary citizens, and there seems to be no recourse. The university students, disenfranchised of their own tongue, resist. They demonstrate; they sit in (remember the sit-ins?); they “shut it down.” They lose.
In Les Ordres, five inhabitants of Montreal, arrested by soldiers under a “War Measures Act” without being charged, are helpless to resist. They spend days or weeks in jail and are released. “We couldn’t find a charge against you,” says a jailer to one prisoner who has just been given back his Manila envelope of belongings and is being ushered out the door to freedom. “Au revoir,” says the jailer, turning away. And that mechanical, dismissive “au revoir” provokes the one direct outburst of resistance in Les Ordres‘ hour-and-a-half of depressive adaptation to the crushing bureaucratic Hand of forcible restraint.
“Government” may be passing the laws (“les ordres”) that repress people, but in both L’Acadie, l’Acadie and Les Ordres, other peoples’ faces are what fill the screen when the repression is going down. The jailer who says “au revoir” and the well-fed city councilman who cocks one condescending ear toward an impassioned U. of Moncton student share the same indifferent, self-satisfied look of placid moral obtuseness. “Why did you do this to us?” a shaken Marie Boudreau (Hélène Loiselle) asks her calm, grey-sideburned interrogator. (The cops and soldiers burst into her home in the middle of the night to arrest her union-organizing husband, but he’s out driving a cab, so when she gets on their nerves, they simply take her along instead.)
“Why?” asks Marie Boudreau. The camera focuses first on the interrogator’s fingers guiding a long, freshly sharpened yellow pencil across a page of notepaper. Silence while he doodles—we now see—a smooth perfect circle. The face, we see next, has remained utterly impassive.
Brault’s film is a kind of fiction grounded in reality. He interviewed 50 of the 450 people arrested, imprisoned, and ultimately freed—still never having been charged—under the War Measures Act. The five characters whose story is followed in Les Ordres are composites drawn from these interviews; everything that happens to them was related to Brault by one of the 50.
Perhaps the most shocking history is enacted by Claude Gauthier as Richard Lavoie, an unemployed former student who is minding his two young children when the cops arrive. In this early scene Gauthier projects tremendous charm, gaiety, intelligence, balance, just plain cool. With les flics swarming sans search warrant all over his tenement apartment, he calmly goes on changing a baby’s diaper. He assures the interlopers, over his shoulder, that “I smoked up all my pot last week.” When one of them opens the top compartment of his fridge and peers in, Lavoie comments that he doesn’t store his dynamite in the freezer.
In prison, a couple of the more dapper minions of the law somehow take into their heads to “get” this young man, and he becomes the object of an exercise in sadism worthy of some scummy Mexican jail. They tell him he’s going to be executed in three days. He sees no reason, in this Kafkaesque atmosphere, to disbelieve them, and he goes to pieces. After three days of hellish anticipation, they take him to a large cellar room, have him walk to the opposite wall, wheel suddenly with their guns drawn … and fire blanks. Lavoie collapses. In a flashforward he tells us that he required psychiatric care after he was released from the jail.
His performance is extraordinarily good, yet totally free of grandstanding, and in this it is like all five central performances. At the beginning of the movie the five actors introduce themselves, by their own names, tell who they are going to play, and give some bits of orienting information on each character. Their performances are so deeply felt, and at the same time so thoughtful, that each “presentation” blends almost immediately into the character itself; yet the awareness lingers that these are actors telling us something about the story they are in.
Brault’s distancing—reinforced by frequent flashforwards in which a character sits and recounts, directly to the camera, his thoughts and feelings on what has been shown happening to him or subsequently happened—never excludes the fleshing out of his story with beautifully unstressed human details and exchanges: the look Boudreau’s eldest daughter Louise has in her eye when he tells her, “Louise, you’re in charge now; I’m counting on you,” and she replies, “Don’t worry”; the banter that passes between Boudreau and Leo, a shopkeeper, when Leo is caught in the act of taking a swig during working hours, followed by Leo’s bemused doubletake when he later looks up from sweeping in front of the store and accidentally catches a glimpse of Boudreau being spirited away in the back of a passing police car.
Brault was always a fine cinematographer (Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine, Kamouraska). His approach to the material of Les Ordres isn’t incompatible with an unostentatiously virtuoso command of the director’s skills, including but not limited to the photographer’s eye. The scene which takes us, finally, via a cop car delivering Boudreau into the vast fluorescent-lit underground parking and reception area of the Montreal jail is a good example. Here the pans and tracks, the cutting, the use of sound, light, color, pack the frame with so much energy and interest and tension that I felt as if I’d been dropped suddenly—after half an hour of technically subdued preparation—into the charged opening scene of a thriller choreographed by Don Siegel.
Another man who knows what he’s doing and appears to be getting better at it with each new picture is Swiss director Alain Tanner. His film at this year’s festival, The Middle of the World, seemed overlong to me, as did his first film, Charles, Dead or Alive. (I haven’t seen La Salamandre or Retour d’Afrique.) Charles, however, after a brilliant start, never did get itself together again, and I felt eventually as if it would never end. But Middle of the World, while it sags here and there during its two-hours-plus, kept reengaging my interest. The conclusion, though deliberately open-ended, is a real conclusion, and the film—thanks partly to novelist John Berger’s collaboration on the script, perhaps—is quite carefully structured.
Tanner certainly picks good actors. For the lead in Charles he used François Simon, a worthy namesake of the great grizzled old actor who was his father. The Middle of the World has two fine performers, Olimpia Carlisi and Philippe Léotard, in the leads, and the versatile Juliet Berto in a very lively subsidiary role. Asked in a recent interview if he would ever make a film set outside Switzerland, Tanner commented that it’s “much easier to work and create characters when you see them every day—to know how they move and speak, and when they speak.” The chief pleasure in watching The Middle of the World, for me, lay in just this sureness, which must come partly from the actors themselves, partly from Tanner’s direction.
He tries for a lot more than this, though, and much of it comes off. Tanner, like BrauIt, uses distancing devices to promote analysis and to interfere with any potentially too emotional identification with the actors. The relatively simple storyline of an extramarital romance between a young engineer running for political office in a small Swiss town and an Italian woman working as a waitress in a nearby railroad café is punctuated by electronic clickings on the soundtrack, printed time notations, tracking shots which begin sensuously and get broken off abruptly, repeated views of a field in varying light, weather and seasonal conditions.
The sound of a train rushing by obtrudes on a conversation; Tanner suddenly cuts away to a new scene. Another time, though, the train sound, or the sight of it going by, occurs in the background without emphasis. Gradually the passage of the train begins to feel like a motif, unstressed and a little mysterious. Near the end, as the waitress, alone again in Zurich, waits at dusk among downtown skyscrapers to cross a busy intersection, the whoosh of tires and sound of motors somehow connects with the train motif and proves (for me) peculiarly moving in a way that doesn’t depend solely upon empathy with the Carlisi character.
“Do you know why the sound of a train seems higher when you first hear it and apparently gets lower as it approaches?” The engineer and the waitress are taking their first walk together and have had to wait at a crossing as a train goes by. No, she doesn’t know. He explains, and adds: “A man named Doppler discovered that. It changed many things.” The resonance of the train image may derive from this key scene.
For Paul’s appreciation of change seems limited to technological change: the Doppler effect; the installation of a new machine at his factory; the modern home and spiffy timesaving appliances for which he insists Adriana should exchange the simple housekeeping room she feels comfortable in.
But to Adriana, “change” is human, like the facial scar she shows him at this point in their walk. She tells him about an accident, about lying for weeks in the hospital uncertain whether she’d come out ugly, or blind. “It changed me.” She doesn’t expect anything special from Paul at first, but out of his passion for her (Tanner explains in the aforementioned interview), she hopes for “…a totality…. It is up to him to play the game, to go to the end of his passion for her with all that that means, the transformation of his character and life.”
What Paul actually wants, it develops, is for her to leave that squalid room. And that demeaning waitress job. Oh, yes, and get that scar fixed up; he’ll see to that.
His insistence on her leaving the room—in the face of her repeated resistance—supports her accusation that he never really listens to her or looks at her. It also takes on an added poignancy from our privileged viewing of a quiet time during which Adriana, alone and unclothed, moves about her small room making coffee, sitting at a table, smoking, at home in her own space and with her own thoughts and feelings, though she has just had a particularly close and loving encounter with Paul.
We see Paul, on his side, get our of his red car on the way back from an assignation, and unabashedly take a leak in that field; we see him suddenly release his feelings in a somersault down a green slope. Through his warming contact with Adriana, the playful, spontaneous quality glimpsed at the very beginning when he’s being questioned about his potential political candidacy, comes to the fore. Nevertheless, he lets Adriana down; perhaps she lets him down too, as her frustrarion grows, her interest wanes, and her personality stubbornly closes off little by little. “Will we change each other?” she asks early in the affair. They don’t.
Instead, “normalization” sets in. The concept is explained by Marxists Berger/Tanner in an introductory title. Normalization is when contact between classes or countries such as the U.S. and Russia or the sexes is acceptable “as long as nothing changes” in the power structure,
I can’t resist concluding with a quote from the Tanner interview (Cineaste, Vol. 5, No. 4), because Tanner, under the intelligent questioning of editor Lenny Rubenstein, is such an unusually articulate spokesman for his own intentions:
Q: How can we expect this transformation from someone like Paul who is characterized as a modern, bourgeois technician?
A: Of course, one can say there is no possibility—this is the pessimistic side of the film in which Paul is the symbol for our society’s time when we see no possibility for change in the short run, or even in the long run. Hopes, I feel, have been delayed or “norma1ized,” and we can’t even see what shape those hopes may take. He is a symbol of that. One doesn’t expect him to change in the course of the film, but underneath he is capable of something. He is still alive and not rotten to the bone, yet, but he is operating in such a society that his role prevents him from changing. This is the interesting thing about Paul, I feel. His character is dual, but it is too late for the human within him to cross the line … playfulness is not enough.
The Brault and Tanner festival films both featured memorably strong performances by women. Another festival film, The Goat’s Horn, was rescued time and again from portentousness by the vitality and luminosity of a woman in the central role. Director Methodi Andonov tries for tragedy in this revenge story set in 17th-century Bulgaria, but the strain often shows. Anton Gortchev is unable to transcend the heaviness of his role as a father who takes his little daughter to a mountaintop, shears her hair, and raises her as a staunch male warrior, a fit partner to help him avenge the beloved wife raped and murdered (before the child’s eyes) by marauding Turks. All goes well until the masculinized but nubile Maria, expert with goat’s horn (dagger), staff, and blunderbuss, meets a young shepherd and falls in love.
The flagging of her interest in the father’s insensate quest for revenge and the awakening of stereotyped Tender female instincts in her breast could easily have been boring and offensive. But Katia Paskaleva brings such conviction to the role of Maria that the love scenes ring true. And the emotional equity she’s built up in the character redeems even the heavy Oedipal melodrama of the conclusion (the father kills her lover), enabling her to invest a brief silent scene of grieving with the sort of elemental power associated with Greek tragedy—and with actresses like Irene Papas.
Like the romance in The Middle of the World, this one begins slowly, tentatively, and builds plausibly. Maria first sees the shepherd (Milene Penev) riding up a slope perched with great aplomb but some absurdity atop an extremely small black burro. He seems a Nasraddin Hodja–type figure, appropriate enough for a film with a folkloric theme (girl raised in exile as a man) set in a country occupied by Turks. Her own behavior is skittish and volatile, at the same time energized and made ambivalent by sexual attraction. Their scenes together, both before and after an encounter under a waterfall which reveals her true gender, have a natural flow that finds Andonov at his relaxed best as a director. The contrast to earlier scenes between father and daughter, where Andonov strains for significance. is striking.
A fierce yet playful stickfight with the father as tutor succeeds quite well, for example, in communicating the pleasure these isolated, roughhousing two have found in each other, along with an undercurrent of unnaturalness in the closeness and exclusivity of their bond … but then Andonov can’t let well enough alone. He follows the joyous stickfight with a forced, wildly overstressed scene. The two jump on their horses and ride at full gallop through the woods. Andonov cuts ad nauseam back and forth from the speeding horses to extreme closeups of father and daughter laughing exultantly, whooping with delight; father, daughter, horse, father, daughter, horse—
A similar heavyhandedness almost ruins the final scenes despite the vigor of their widescreen photography. Maria, radiantly happy, about to be married, goes to the shepherd’s house and finds him dead. Moving slowly and hieratically about the place, she puts it to the torch; flames roar up, with the lover’s body still upstairs, in a moment that recalls to both ear and eye the performance of the same solemn, ceremonial act by the father, at the beginning of the film, when he finds the violated body of his wife and reverentially immolates her. Now the guilty father is skulking around in front of the shepherd’s house. He watches his stricken daughter come out; mourn; prepare a shroud; go back in the house. He waits, and nothing happens. Then the flames burst out; he waits some more; still she doesn’t reemerge. Suddenly the truth dawns … and the anguished “No!!” with which he rushes forward (too late) is an exclamation, however true emotionally, that delivers us straight into melodramaland.
Perhaps the film could have ended with Maria’s grieving, a powerhouse image of a white-clad figure soberly weaving back and forth across the wide screen. But no. Andonov has to lay his Balkan King Lear trip on us. The father staggers out of the burning house bearing his dead daughter in his arms. The father howls like a dog. He stands on the pinnacle of his mountain, grappling huge rocks to the edge and rolling them down. A wide-angle lens, tilted up from the bottom of the slope, renders his burly figure pathetically tiny. Fadeout. The Dunbar audience, obviously moved a few minutes earlier by Maria’s quiet grieving, remained patently unmoved by all this final sound and fury.
The matter of audience responsiveness, however, alerts me to the risk that I’ve given too many examples of directorial overreaching and too few of Andonov’s not-inconsiderable successes. Peak audience response (including my own) occurred at a moment when Peskaleva’s fine acting and Andonov’s directorial skill worked perfectly in concert. The father, becoming aware that Maria’s burgeoning “womanliness” threatens both his monomaniacal plans for vengeance and his unacknowledged emotional dependence on his own daughter, reacts with anger when she comes back to their mountain hideout one day—after another unexplained absence—carrying and caressing an irresistibly cute young animal she’s picked up along the way. Kill it, he says roughly, handing her the knife. Kill it and skin it. She refuses, shuddering. He seizes the animal. A couple of quick cuts, in both senses of the word, and the “pet” is a bloody carcass being flayed. Maria recoils, literally, in shock, and a cry of such terrible pain issues from her gut that people all over the darkened theater flinched, and then wept.
Direction: Michel Brault. Screenplay: Brault, François Protat. Cinematography: Brault. Editing: Yves Dion.
The Players: Jean Lapointe, Hélène Loiselle, Claude Gauthier, Guy Provost, Louise Forestier.
THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD
Direction: Alain Tanner. Screenplay: Tanner, John Berger. Cinematography: Renato Berta. Editing: Brigitte Sousselier. Music: Patrick Moray.
The Players: Olimpia Carlisi, Philippe Léotard, Juliet Berto.
THE GOAT’S HORN
Direction: Methodi Andonov. Screenplay: Nikolai Haitov. Cinematography: Dimo Kolarov. Music: Simeon Pironkov.
The Players: Katia Paskaleva, Anton Gortchev, Milene Penev.
Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler