Deep within the Laurentian mountains in Québec province lives a pre-pubescent, saucer-eyed girl named Manon (played with absolute assurance by Charlotte Laurier). She lives at the end of a rutted dirt road, outside a nondescript town with her mother Michelle (Marie Tifo) and her mentally-challenged uncle (Germain Houde). Chopping and selling firewood to the mountain vacation homes of Montreal’s wealthy weekenders, they sustain a meager existence in a ramshackle compound of rusted-out trucks and stripped snow-moving equipment left to Michelle by her deceased father. Manon is a precocious, romantic, devil child who vacillates between scorn and ridicule for her family one moment, while the next she exhibits an overly obsessive lover’s attachment to her mother. In the meantime, sinking beneath a constant habit of alchohol and desperation, her uncle Guy can be only rudimentarily social, increasingly running afoul of the local bar patrons and the cops who pull night duty.
The gamin-like Manon’s world is tortured from taking on the mantle of an adult in her desires, while realistically having only the very limited power of a child with which to fulfill those desires. Like a backwoods Madonna, her mother, Michelle is the object of affection from others in this film in addition to her family. The town’s flabby, middle-aged police chief is having an open sexual affair with Michelle, while her ex-boyfriend, Gaetan continues to tantalize her with his Peter Pan charm and a Lothario’s persistence. It is only the geographic isolation of these characters which allows for the illusions of freedom which each, in their own way, is suffering from—none more deeply than Manon. When Michelle learns that she’s pregnant with the police chief’s child and informs him, he immediately suggests an abortion, which means little to the independent Michelle. Subsequently, she begins to act dreamy and less attentive to the attractions of her daughter and the potential dangers of her brother Guy’s slide into depression and violence. Her pregnancy seems to provide a reprieving dream world where she also can avoid the realities of those constant calls to a responsibility she’s too exhausted to continue. Upon hearing that her mom is pregnant, Manon is aghast with resentment and fear of losing her mother’s sole attention. She begins acting the renegade; and like a belligerent lover scorned, she has only vitriol for those who stand to steal her mother’s affection, even to the point of driving away the unborn child’s father with accusations of sexual abuse, and finally prodding her Uncle, who she calls “the moron” into a delusional attraction to a local wealthy woman, ending in debasement and his eventual suicide.
Now, effectively, at least in the mind of a young rather-twisted girl, all her fears of outside invasion have been stilled. She severs contact with the world, crawls into bed with her sleeping mother and kisses her like the protective lover in adoration’s resolution at the end of Emily Bronte’s novel. Safety is present, it sleeps beside her, Manon can close the book and sleep.
Francis Mankiewicz’s 1980 film of Rejean Ducharmé’s screenplay, Les Bons Débarras, is one of Canada’s most critically praised and awarded films ever. It is an entrancement of sorts into states of social behavior both perverse and yet utterly valid. Rejean Ducharme, whom some have labelled the Canadian J.D. Salinger for his guarded privacy as well as his protean writing talent, often deals in his novels and stage plays with similar themes as this screenplay in which young people reject adult values. Manon’s youth creates a singular and personal world to transcend the limitations and hypocrisies of the damaged lives and social systems she see before her as unacceptable. Manon, as played pitch-perfect by the young actress, Charlotte Laurier is as compelling a character as one will ever see in a motion picture. Her thoughts, her rationales, her fears are all seen in her body movement, her expressions, her amazing eyes which are as quick to dazzle and entertain as to cut-off and descend into a hellish world of jealousy and retribution. Her sins are always committed at her belief in love’s demands—a romantic, non-qualified affection as per Goethe’s Young Werther, as per Salinger’s Seymour Glass, as per Heathcliff himself, whom Manon has been reading about in Wuthering Heights parallel to the films unfolding action. Michel Brault was the Director of Photography responsible for Les Bons Débarras not floating away into allegory or simplistic meanings of people, places, emotions, fears, damage, helplessness, or that line beyond reason where truth is kept. The film retained the look of simplicity within a harsh environment. He is a complete filmmaker, and besides his honors for shooting many of Canada’s exemplary films in the 1970’s and 1980’s, he directed many of his own movies, winning a Best Directors honor at Cannes for his 1974 film, Les Ordres. He’s been a filmmaker for over 50 years and continues to work in documentaries and features for Canadian TV.
The mountains of Québec seem forbidding in the film. Trees seem to encroach upon the roads and houses and town like an oppression of silent witnesses. They alone can sustain the rain, wind, snow and isolation—all signifiers of psychological turmoil and change in a fantastical reading of life’s aversion to change. Curiously, the story includes another character in Manon’s uncle, Guy, who embodies the opposite of Manon as girl-adult. Guy, as the result of meningitis as a child, has grown into an adult-boy. The polar opposite of Manon, with no magnetism in the slightest between them, merely disgust in the mind of Manon, and a vague fear in the eyes of Guy. Maria Tifo’s portrayal of Michelle is one who has tasted freedom’s promises in her healthy sexuality, her independence, her unshared parenthood. Part of the tragedy in this film is watching the definition of that freedom change into something dark lurking just beyond the moment, weighty with foreboding, a garrote to strangle independence into psychic suffocation and meaninglessness. Michelle is something of an earth goddess having refused to live by the other gods’ precepts. Finally, she’s punished for her refusal, for her dismissal of rules and heaven’s paternal constraints. For this she’s thrown to earth with its mortal complaints, its answerless problems, its constant tug on her abilities to love, suckling the mentally crippled, the outcasts, watching as her brother regresses and own daughter goes mad. It’s tragedy as primal as that of the Greeks. It’s political tragedy of the French Québécois surrounded by English Canada. It’s the pains of growing past childhood’s personal esteem into an adult’s oppressive social esteem. Feeling every cell in your body has been duped by the promise of safety and growth, when in fact it learns only constancy of change and death. Michelle is the bearer of this news, the giver of life now the involuntary messenger of decay and extinction.
Rarely does a film probe and burrow into traditional mores and expose truthful sanctions, which human existence is bound by, than Les Bons Débarras. It traces those borders of possibility outside the probable, discovering strange happenings in material reality and the lucidity of intellectual metaphor for many many modern inhabitants on all continents, all countries, all cities and villages. The details in rural Quebec are details in the genetic genome, they’re details in Aristotle’s ethics, they’re details in Johannes Vermeer’s Zen-like moments of interior grace, they’re spikes in the leather straps of penitente’s in their medieval monastery cells, they’re paragraphs in a blog, a newspaper, a scrap of poetry torn from a library book. The film takes our finger and puts it into a wound so that we may believe in something beyond myth, beyond entertainments. We’d no more want to hold Manon and assure her of our love than we would would suck the sores of lepers, but she’s there waiting, we can’t pretend we don’t know that. Her doubts are our doubts, her cruelties are also ours, her “all or nothing” bravado is also the by-product of our fear. Inside that weathered Econoline van with the bald tires and the broken back door lock, we ride from place to place through misty mountain roads looking for something we’ve only read about in stories, only seen in daydreams, an identity, an ideal. Something without a name even, a feeling we’ve hungered for since birth which can hurt so badly that most of us banish it from mind and memory at an early age, but what we’ve forgotten is still there around the curve, down the cliff, at the bottom of the bridge. It’s always calling in its druggy voice, through its lies and multiple disguises. It wears a studded collar, it begs and calls us master. It says “I can, master.” “I can, master.” And we tremble at its love