Francis Mankiewicz, who despite his name and birthplace of Shanghai was a Québecois filmmaker through and through, only ever made a handful of films. Four of them supposedly make up an auteurist body of work in which Mankiewicz explores the disappearance of traditional Man and the emergence of modern Woman – in Québecois society as in its film. Doubtless this theme finds its roots in the rapid modernization and secularization of Québec in the 60s, which opened up a wide generation gap and left a people to reevaluate themselves and their way of life. But as interesting as it is to keep in mind, it’s a limited reading of this, his most celebrated and critically acclaimed film.
Good Riddance charts a clingy little girl’s efforts to cut off all ties between her single mother and the men in her life. Much as it may sound like the set-up for a strained comedy, the film’s sombre gloom and disarmingly Gothic setting quickly betray it as dead serious, a claustrophobic psychological drama. Anchored by Charlotte Laurier’s charmingly nefarious starring turn as, to all appearances, the film’s protagonist, Les bons débarras ultimately becomes a twisted reverse coming-of-age tale. I’m speaking ambiguously on purpose, because the film’s developments are gradual and subtle and by its end you’re left uncertain, drifting in a half-comforting and half-terrifying nightmare. Much of the film’s atmosphere, as well as its pathos, is provided by the haunting presence of the girl’s uncle, Guy.
Precisely what we’re supposed to think of this man is unclear. A recurring character archetype in Québec’s cinema is the beautiful loser, to borrow a potent Leonard Cohen phrase – the drunken, mildly lecherous, alternatingly powerless and ineffectual French-Canadian man. In this film, the beautiful loser is rendered a grotesque caricature, an apparently mentally challenged man who passes his time drinking, driving recklessly around by night, and lusting after a wealthy neighbour from afar. Germain Houde plays him admirably as something darker than a simpleton but always more helpless than insidious. The perennially downtrodden victim is not uncommon in the most well-acclaimed films from Québec and Canada in general (see the titular figure of Mon Oncle Antoine or the lead duo of Goin’ Down the Road) – here, Ti-Guy is a victim of even his very own impulses, incapable of governing himself, let alone take control of his destiny. His climactic scene in the film is one of the poetic and plaintive sequences in Canadian cinema, and on its own renders this film a classic.
Good Riddance is shot austerely by Michel Brault, the great cinematographer/director that some of you will remember from last year’s cup, and written by the acclaimed novelist Réjean Ducharme. For all of its stylistic humbleness and realist aesthetic (realism being something of an obsession with Canadian directors anxious to distance themselves from the shadow of Hollywood), this is a very deliberately and carefully assembled film with a great deal of talent behind it. Although it’s not my very favourite Canadian film, it’s less esoteric than my other choices might have been, and no less forgotten; it may have swept the Genie Awards when it came out and it may remain one of the most lauded films in the history of Québecois cinema, but outside of Québec, it’s unreleased and sadly unknown. This is a dense piece of work and my sloppy introduction can’t begin to do it justice, but it’s the best I could do in such short order and if it makes one person more look into this match-up, it’ll be well worth the slight to Mankiewicz’s masterpiece.
Steve Gravestock (contextualizing the film much more succinctly than I have):
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 ordres (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.
Continued here (but beware of spoilers)
I wonder if the English subtitles do Réjean Ducharme any justice, I adore the way this man writes, not to mention the fact that the actors deliver his dialogues perfectly. Charlotte Laurier, Marie Tifo and Germain Houde are all fantastic, as is Gilbert Sicotte who brings smiles and laughs to this not very rosy film.
I thought this was a very fine introduction, btw.
Had started this earlier and then just finished it, thanks to this thread. Yes, I can see how this film is highly regarded in Quebec. Good introduction, Malkin, to this dark, disturbing, and all too human tale. The young actress playing the daughter Manon, Charlotte Laurier, is great. Manon is a terror, reminding me of the wicked Ana Torrent in Cria Cuervos – and just about as destructive. Yet, one can’t help but relate to her own cynical precociousness (she is reading Wuthering Heights throughout) and her view that all the adults around her are dysfunctional. But her rather simplistic view of the adults, her tendency to lie to get her own way, cause all the trouble in the film. She has an obsessive and manipulative relationship with her Mom, which is at the heart of the film. Yet, all her actions are a result of her need to be wanted and loved. This seeing of human affairs through a glass darkly seems typical of Quebec film, in general, from those I have seen.
Thanks for giving us the background on this important film in Quebec film history. I’m glad for the opportunity to see it.