Gabrielle, the new film from Montreal director Louise Archambault, is Romeo and Juliet with a twist: A young woman and a man, who sing in the same choir for people with mental disabilities, fall in love, but his parents, worried that he’s not ready for adult intimacy, forbid them from seeing each other. Like Shakespeare’s star-cross’d lovers, they’re determine to break the rules.
“Every film has its references,” says Archambault. “For me, it was a question, to be precise, about happiness. Do you pass some boundaries, go through difficulties? Music and singing and choir were always part of the equation for me … and then there were the people in my neighbourhood where I swim.”
Archambault, with her blond bangs and warm open manner, looks like a slender teenager, though her résumé says she’s in her forties. A mother of two (her ex is cinematographer-director André Turpin), she has been working in film and television for a couple of decades, as everything from still photographer to costume designer. She finished a master’s degree at Montreal’s Concordia University, then won the 2000 Prix Jutra for her first short film, Atomic Sake. Her fine first long film, Familia, won Best Canadian First Feature at the 2005 Toronto International Film Festival. She has also directed Lock, a portrait of choreographer Édouard Lock, for the National Film Board. Gabrielle was Canada's official submission for this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, though it didn't make the short list.
Back to the swimming: She explains that there was a woman, who was mentally disabled, who went to the public pool where Archambault swam. The woman would complain loudly as her caretaker put on her bathing cap but once in the water, she would float and sing beautifully.
“She looked so happy. People around looked awkward,” recalls Archambault, who speaks English in quick chains of association, occasionally struggling for the right word. “There’s something we have to learn about that. It’s not normal.”
She started researching adults with mental disabilities, and their families, and people who help them without much reward or recognition. At one point, she saw a television documentary about a group called Young Musicians of the World, founded by Mathieu Fortier, his wife, Agathe, and his brother, Blaise, who established a residential school in India in 2002 to teach impoverished students how to play traditional Hindustani music. Archambault went to India. She planned to set half of Gabrielle there, but budget limitations made that impossible. India lives on in Gabrielle, however, through Skype conversations in the film. And the idea of arts education remained a key to the movie.
Archambault learned about Les Muses: Centre des arts de la scène, a Montreal performing arts school for people with disabilities, which she visited. In one of the singing classes, she met Gabrielle Marion-Rivard, who eventually became the star of Gabrielle. Marion-Rivard has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition that causes moderate intellectual impairment and a distinctive appearance, sometimes described as elfin. The condition is also often characterized by a highly sociable personality and an affinity for music.
“Right away, I loved her light – and she’s a great singer but she’s not an actress, you know?” Archambault says. “I didn’t know if I would take her because the film is carried on her shoulders. But I wanted to do a film with these guys, not about them. My gut says yes and my producer, says, ‘Let’s try it.’ So, I did some improvisation and some rehearsals and I thought, ‘Okay, this won’t be perfect, but I can adapt. We’ll find many magical moments and some truth.’ I’m not out to preach some moral: It’s a love story. And a musical.”
Archambault spent a year working with Marion-Rivard, who, she says, has perfect pitch and a wonderful memory for the script as well as other advantages as an actress: “All the scenes with emotions, sensitivity, it’s very natural. There are no filters. The other actors can only be as authentic as her or it doesn’t work. Every scene, she kills it. But she still had to work at it. Gabrielle [in the film] is a character, not the real person.”
The challenge for people with Marion-Rivard’s condition comes in following a series of instructions, which meant Archambault needed to be patient: “You say, ‘Gabrielle – get the keys off the table and go out the door.’ That’s 20 takes. For sure, Gabrielle can’t be given a two-minute instruction. It’s five or six words, and that’s it,” she says.
“And, of course, I had to get the dialogue right, to get inside the characters’ minds. I spent a lot of time at Les Muses just observing. All the non-professional actors kept their real first names so I could do improvisation with them, to keep them in the moment.”
Like other non-professionals, cast members would tend to look at the camera instead of each other. So Archambault did not always let them know when it was rolling, keeping the hand-held camera constantly moving. Sometimes she deliberately cued the non-professional actors to change their lines in different order, to force the professionals in the cast to stay alert. There wasn’t time for a lot of extra footage in the 28-day shoot so she rewrote and cut the script as necessary on the go.
Late in the film, Quebec rock icon Robert Charlebois makes a visit to the school to rehearse for a concert. When he showed up, Archambault simply told him, “Okay Robert. We’re going to improvise. And he was like, ‘But my hair’ …”
One of the students introduced herself to the singer, saying: “I’m your biggest idol.”
“That’s a line I could never have written,” Archambault says. “The students were so impressed with him. And Robert was impressed with them. I told him he could take a break for lunch, but he spent lunches with them, being a pal, because he felt something.”
Charlebois was just one of several pop singers she considered for the movie; she says the clincher came when she was watching the Les Muse choir perform, and a man with Asperger’s syndrome sang Charlebois’ Ordinaire (Ordinary Guy), a song about the humble life of a rock star.
“I knew that song all my life but as he was singing it, with such feeling, and Gabrielle and another woman were singing harmony – suddenly I had a whole new interpretation of those lyrics,” Archambault says. “I got the chicken pox – is that right?”
“Goose bumps?” I suggest.
“Yes, goose bumps,” she agrees, and quotes a line from the song: “‘I’m just an ordinary guy’ … But I am, too. And you, and everybody. That’s my script – and I wrote it. Whoa!”