Oh, Canada!: If You Think Life Is Bad Now, Just You Wait! Or Make a Film


summit_circleThe Museum of Modern Art is home to two theaters programmed by some of the finest curators in the business. And if you ever get to chat them up at a cocktail party or at a MENSA meeting, you'll find them as charming as they are erudite, especially the celebrated Laurence Kardish, Senior Curator, Department of Film.

This, by the way, is the perfect time to kvell over Mr. Kardish, who organized, in cooperation with Telefilm Canada, last week's celebration of the celluloid side of our northern neighbor, Canadian Front, 2008. Eight feature films were screened spotlighting the best and more innovative talent of that rather huge country.

Yes, we should be chanting hosannas for the fifth year of this event not unlike those spouted by President Bush when he visited Ottawa in 2004: "I want to thank all the Canadians who came out today to wave to me - with all five fingers!" Handily, the feature I caught last Thursday at 8:00 p.m. was director/writer Bernard Emond's Contre toute esperance (2007), which instead of being translated into the more appropriate Against Any Hope is being hawked on this side of the border as Summit Circle. The audience attending was rather sparse and grizzled, yet feisty. At least they were at the beginning of this offering.

Summit Circle opens with a woman, mute with agony, being unfruitfully interviewed at a police station. Covered with blood, both facially and jacket-wise, she was arrested for shooting up a house.

Well, who is she?

Answer: Réjeanne Poulin (Guylaine Tremblay), a lady whose husband Gilles (Guy Jodoin) is discovered shot in the chest in the couple's home. Is  his murderer? That's what Lt. Allard (Rene-Daniel Dubois) wants to know.

As the stalwart officer explores the couple's history, the film cuts from present to past and back again. Réjeanne, he learns, was a telephone operator and Gilles a truck driver. The two were a hardworking couple in their mid-forties, who decide to buy a beautiful house on Summit Circle, that was a little bit out of their means, but what the hell? Gilles loved gardening. 

Réjeanne: You're pretty refined for a trucker.

Gilles: It takes all kinds.

It was a fairy-tale beginning that turned nightmarish when Gilles had a stroke, losing some of his verbal and physical abilities.

Réjeanne: I love you . . . . We'll get through this.

Réjeanne seemed right until Gilles experienced a second stroke; then their lives went totally downhill. It was bye-bye house on Summit Circle. It was bye-bye hope. As in his previous film, The Novena, a beautiful exploration of faith, Edmund elicits very strong performances as he surveys the wreckage of a woman's life and her ability -- if any -- to persist. Yet there's a reason you'll never see Summit Circle at your local art house.

Even though it has twice the amount of strokes as offered by the critically acclaimed The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which garnered over $5 million in the United States alone, Edmund avoids the visual wit of Julian Schnabel and refuses to offer up the hope Schnabel does.

For Edmund, an anthropologist by training, life can assume a continuous drop downwards into a chasm of disheartenment. The culprit here is seemingly a toxic mixture of fate and capitalism. (Note the scene where Réjeanne, now working for a caterer, is serving hors d'oeuvres at a party honoring the former owner of the telephone company where she once worked. J'accuse!)

Possibly the best way to share Edmond's philosophy is to quote him: "Life is unbearable and then we die. Those who can forget this unavoidable truth and live their lives without resorting to alcohol or drugs are lucky. And those who keep their eyes open despite everything and who see things in the true sense of the word, without being tempted to destroy themselves, are either heroes or saints . . . . Beyond these generalities, there is the irreducible suffering of people's lives. One way to talk about it is to make a film." - Brandon Judell

brandon.jpgMr. Judell, who's currently teaching "Contemporary Israeli/Palestinian Cinema" at City College, has written on film for The Village Voice, indieWire, Detour, and dozens of other publications.