Review: Tendresse Ordinaire

[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]

Awful long on the ordinaire, this movie of Leduc’s, and kinda short on the tendresse; still, I liked it a lot. Once the wife, Esther (Esther Auger), and her cheerful friend Bernadette (Luce Guilbeault) get their cake into the oven, that is, and we switch, finally, to husband Jocelyn (Jocelyn Berube), who’s on a train heading for a four-month job in Quebec’s deep north. The movie opens with some ten minutes (more? less? my memory isn’t reliable here, it seemed like an eternity to me) of the left-behind wife and her pal moving about a small kitchen and preparing that cake. Talk’s pretty well limited to “pass me the sugar please”; and although a few details (the women appreciatively sniffing a vial of vanilla, a closeup of sifting flour) are pleasant enough, this opening scene is really one long drag. Now it happens I like to cook myself, and I don’t necessarily demand that movie cooking be jazzed up with flashy editing and photography, nor brightened by a running commentary of gags and hijinks à la Galloping Gourmet either. But—oh, my, those of us who saw Makavejev’s Switchboard Operator, will we ever forget those eggs, that cream, those luscious, lustrous tonalities of black and white? What happened here, I suspect, is that Leduc simply told the two women to go ahead and bake a cake, and “improvise” their dialogue as they went along. The taxing real-time result yields virtually nothing in the way of character insight yet fails to hold the eye. Ten (?) full minutes of purposeful kitchen activity, and it all comes out squirmworthiest temps mort. Oh, not as mort, maybe, as those long takes of the back of bored, lonely Esther’s head at the end of the movie—not that mort—but mort enough, I think, to turn off all but the most determined viewers.

I dwell disproportionately on this first scene because it seems to me to embody the trouble directors can get into when they eschew the brisk narrative line of conventional fiction films yet can’t find quite the right balance or style to sustain a feature-length movie that includes swatches of quasi-vérité. This said, I should celebrate some of Tendresse ordinaire‘s not-inconsiderable successes. Where Leduc has found a satisfactory style—subtle, unstressed, yet attention-holding—is in his use of color. Quebec, winter, the North: predominating hues, inevitably, are blue, white, gray. The pale blue walls of the home in which lonely Esther is barely holding herself together are a long chalk from, say, Godard’s blazing primary blues; and when the camera pans along those walls, through a series of empty rooms, and comes to rest facing the kitchen, where Esther sits silently sewing, wearing a deep russet sweater and gilded by winter sunlight from the kitchen window, the effect—on me, at least—was of a beautifully subdued kind of joy. Later, sandwiched between a memory of the young couple moving with shopping cart through a supermarket’s plastic profusion of “gay” colors, and a scene of the northbound husband and two other men in a dimly lit but warm-toned bar drinking beer, talking, and half-watching a beautiful stripper held in deep focus onstage, ‘way across the room, there’s a brief scene in which Jocelyn and a road acquaintance drive through the “fucking Quebec weather” (snow and sleet), attempt to recall Québécois TV-show theme songs (an improvisation?), and stop in the middle of Northern nowhere to fix a flat tire. They’re jacking up the car when Leduc inserts, abruptly, an utterly still, perfectly composed view of the landscape of this “nowhere”: traceries of snow-laden branches, a diagonal of snowhill, a glimmering body of pale blue water in the distance. It’s held a moment, and before we return to the car and the men in their bright winter clothing, the first view is replaced by a second, equally tranquil, equally beautiful, and equally confined to the modalities of blue, white, and gray. The effect, again, is very subdued and yet joyful: a triumphant revaluation of the drab winter palette. The calm self-sufficiency of these two views, one succeeding the other without human referents, made me think of Ozu. Then we return to the car, and tire-fixing; and then a brief final still-life; then back to the story, such as it is.

Such moments are the best in Leduc’s film, I think, but there are welcome flashes of liveliness too amidst the prevailing calm. As when Jocelyn, an amateur fiddler, teams with another road acquaintance, a guitarist, and the two delightedly unleash a reel in a cramped motel room, accompanied by a third man on what appeared to be a pair of spoons. Or when subsidiary characters on the northbound train threaten to come to life: a bearded guitarist singing scabrous songs about pimples, sex, and “little Jesus”; a stuffy-looking older man whose evident distaste for the young people is misleading; a rootless “swinging” secretary in hip boots whose motives for working in the grim North are obscure. Jocelyn himself doesn’t exactly “develop” as a character, but each time we come back to him we get a clearer sense of his personality, as he tells a companion how he used to break the ice for “Easter water,” or how playing his fiddle in the barracks up north can be like talking to someone, or simply how terrifically much he loves to drink beer. The problem in Tendresse ordinaire is Esther, the wife. Frankly, she’s a king-sized bore. Her character is accurate, no doubt, and consistent; even in the supermarket scene, the way she acts betrays her poverty of resources—but … To begin the movie with her (that cake) is a bummer; to end it with her plunged in boredom, at the end of her limited rope, may be symmetrical, but it’s a bummer too. The old trap—fallacy of imitative form—Antoni-ennui (thank you, Andrew Sarris); Ledouceatre. Dommage.

TENDRESSE ORDINAIRE
Direction: Jacques Leduc. Screenplay: Robert Tremblay. Cinematography: Paul Larose. Editing: Pierre Bernier. Production: Larose, for the National Film Board of Canada.
The Players: Esther Auger, Jocelyn Berube, Luce Guilbeault.

Copyright © 1975 Ken Eisler


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