Images of the Rural: The Cinema of Quebec

By Harcourt, Peter | CineAction, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Images of the Rural: The Cinema of Quebec


Harcourt, Peter, CineAction


In 1964 when Gilles Groulx made Le Chat dans le sac, he defined for Quebec the sensibility of a generation. Although Pierre Perrault's Pour la suite du monde and Claude Jutra's A tout prendre appeared at about the same time, it was Groulx's film that spoke to the politicized French Canadians who were soon to become Quebecois.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The film presents the story of Claude/Claude Godbout, a young urban intellectual who is discontented with his life as a French Canadian but doesn't know what to do about it. Impatience is his response to everything he encounters--impatience and intolerance. Like the protagonist in Jacques Godbout's novel, Le Couteau sur la table (1965), Claude is involved with a Jewish Anglophone believing that, as a member of an equally oppressed minority, she might have some sympathy for the French Canadian cause. Finally, however, he abandons her and retreats to the country--as if to find his way through being surrounded by his own people. In effect, he returns to the land. (1)

Le retour a la terre. That phrase possessed a mantric power in early French Canadian philosophy, as if part of a collective ontology. It suggests a longing for the pastoral--for a prelapsarian way of life that existed before the assaults of urbanized capitalism. It is also inextricably intertwined with French Canadian Catholicism and its insistence on the spiritual value of an agricultural way of life.

Whatever the reality, this was the ideal--an ideal preached from the pulpit every Sunday morning. There was no more passionate an advocate of this ideal that Abbe Lionel Groulx (1878-1967) who in books such as La Naissance d'une race (1919) and Notre Maitre, le passe(1936) promoted it as a foundation myth for French Canadian habitants. In one of his novels, L'Appel de la race (The Iron Wedge, 1922), he dramatizes the conversion of Jules de Lantagnac from a most successful Ottawa lawyer into a political radical for the cause of the French language in Canada.

Helped by the urgings of Father Fabien, Lantagnac revisits the parish of St-Michel in the Larentians--the place of his birth that he had not seen in twenty years. As he afterwards explains:

  "Just imagine, Father Fabien," the pilgrim went on ... "just imagine
  that I have set off through the fields, and that I revisit this
  landscape at the end of June, a matchless period of the year in our
  Quebec countryside. It is the time at which the great rejuvenation of
  plant life and the start of maturity overlap. The trees display their
  rich green foliage, thick, vigorous, swollen with sap.... From the
  banks of the ditches rises the perfume of wild strawberries. Your
  nostrils dilate in the intoxicating air; an indefinable surge of youth
  and springtime flows into you, makes you throw out your chest, gives
  springiness to your legs, as you press forward bare-headed into the
  warm wind, and your feet, your poor feet sore from the hard
  cobblestones of the cities, almost dance on the soft grass." (2)

Inspired by the beauty of his country, this conversion prompts him to alienate himself from his anglophone wife and two of his four children to espouse the francophone cause which, in 1915, was threatened by the government's determination to withdraw funding from French-language schools in Ontario. This determination was seen by Francophones as a betrayal of confederation which had promised equal rights for both cultures. Exaggerated as these bucolic panegyrics may seem to us now, the language issue, still present in Quebec, began with this betrayal. And even when the church had relinquished its power of conversion, the pull of the land remained.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

The Pastoral Tradition

Within European civilization, the pastoral has a long history. In ancient times it conjured up images of scantily clad nymphs consorting with centaurs and unicorns. By the nineteen century, it had acquired a spiritual force. …

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