Columns | CANADIANA: Good Riddance to Myth: Francis Mankiewicz’s Les bons débarras

By Steve Gravestock

One of the most canonized movies in Canadian film history, Francis Mankiewicz’s Les bons débarras (Québec, 1980) was received as a classic almost instantly. It won most of the significant Genies the year it was eligible, defeating Bob Clark’s far more expensive, but vastly inferior Tribute, a much bigger budget Anglo feature showcasing the gifts of aging American ham Jack Lemmon. It has figured prominently in almost every major all-time best poll of Canadian or Québecois filmmakers and critics since then. The film placed in the top ten in every poll by the Toronto International Film Festival Group (in 1983, only a few years after it was made; 1993 and 2004); and was voted the best Québecois film ever in a poll in the Montréal newspaper La Presse. The only other films as well thought of domestically (it doesn’t have the same reputation internationally) are Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road (1970), Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971), and Michel Brault’s Les orders (1974). Indeed, Les bons débarras may now be better respected than the first two films—long seen as the respective pinnacles of the Québecois and English-Canadian film industries.

Recently restored by the Toronto International Film Festival Group and screening as a Canadian Open Vault selection at this year’s TIFF, Les bons débarras will be released in selected cities across Canada beginning this fall. In some ways, it’s actually an odd film to canonize. The three other films all address culturally fundamental issues for Canadians. (All of them were also made by directors widely considered to be key figures. In contrast, few outside Québec have seen any of Mankiewicz’s other films.) Mon oncle Antoine deals with the disenfranchisement and second class status of the Québecois in post-World War II rural Québec, alluding to key events in Québecois history. Shebib’s film explores regional disparity and urbanization, focusing on two hosers who travel from the Maritimes, one of the poorest areas in Canada, to the big city: Toronto. Les ordres looks at the aftermath of the implementation of the War Measures Act, a response to the kidnapping of government officials and the murder of one.

Les bons débarras is radically different in scale and temperament, at least at first glance. Based on an original script by Réjean Ducharme (a novelist fond of gothically dysfunctional families) and set in rural Québec, Les bons débarras follows Manon (Charlotte Laurier), a 13-year-old girl determined to have exclusive claim on the attentions of her mother Michelle (Marie Tifo). The tone and look of the film—shot by legendary director and cinematographer Brault—is decidedly realist, contrasting the drab, dirty interiors of the family’s ramshackle cottage with the fertile, yet indifferent and harsh wilderness that surrounds them.

Along with Michelle’s mentally challenged brother Guy (Germain Houde), the family ekes out a paltry existence cutting firewood and doing other odd jobs. Pissed at being constantly left at home to care for Guy, Manon is determined to drive away any of Michelle’s suitors, including the avuncular local police chief, Maurice (Roger Lebel). When Michelle tells her daughter that she’s pregnant with Maurice’s baby, Manon snaps, eventually causing Guy’s death and effectively eliminating Maurice from their lives.

Clearly, Manon is a demon child, determined to have exclusive claims on her mother’s love no matter what the cost. At the same time, there’s something compelling and perversely appealing about Manon’s actions. Part of it may be the wide-eyed, furious intensity of Charlotte Laurier’s performance, but it’s also the pitch of her frustration. In her feverish determination to own her mother exclusively, she’s reminiscent of the anti-heroes of the Angry Young Men cinema of 1960s Britain. Then there’s her ambition, intelligence, and youth. The other characters may not be entirely happy with their fates. Michelle bemoans her family’s odd behaviour and especially her lack of money. Guy fetishizes the utterly unattainable, wealthy Madame Viau-Vachon (Louise Marleau). But Manon is the only one who might be able to escape this life. In some quarters, in fact, Manon is seen as purely heroic, rejecting the no-way-out oppressive circumstances of her predecessors, an action that could only be seen as perverse by them. Of course, one could also argue that Manon is the offspring of an insular society that cannot look outside of itself, with inevitably corrosive consequences.

Reading films this way is a tradition in the literature around Québecois cinema. As Bill Marshall—see his seminal Québec National Cinema for a lengthier summary of the critical discussion of the film—and others have argued, many critics are sorely tempted to allegorize Québec cinema, turning every film, no matter how frothy or insignificant, into a commentary on Québecois politics and history, often in very specific terms.

Les bons débarras is historically significant for another reason. It creates a new mythology around the countryside. Rural roots, attachment to the land, ties to old families have, at various times, been highly prized in Québecois culture, as one might expect from a French-speaking enclave in a largely English-speaking region. And the countryside has often been seen as a place of purity, a way to escape the confusions of modern life in films of the ‘60s and ‘70s. (See Gilles Groulx’s Le chat dans le sac [1964] or, to a certain extent, Pour la suite de monde [1963].) Mankiewicz’s film rejected and effectively destroyed this myth. Here, the countryside is hell. Other films had questioned the presumed purity of the countryside, but none quite as effectively, realistically or as accessibly. That image of rural regions as hell, a link to an oppressive past, has become a central motif in much of subsequent Québecois cinema, evident in films as different as Robin Aubert’s surreal horror film Saint-Martyrs-des-damnés (2005) and the recent thriller Nitro. Few films can boast that they’ve effectively rewritten history. Fewer still can boast a performance like Laurier’s, which at times seems near feral, at others profoundly touching.

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