Les Bons Débarras ( Good Riddance), which came out in 1980, regularly finishes high in polls of the best Canadian films ever made. Such lists are suspect; most critics are ranking their memories rather than the actual films. But a new print of this canonized Canadian and Quebec classic will give viewers across the country a rare chance to see the film in the next couple of months.
The plot sounds stereotypical - a backwoods family drama with a troubled adolescent, lots of beer drinking and a tragic ending. Set in autumn in the Laurentians, the film focuses on 13-year-old Manon (Charlotte Laurier), who lives with her single mother, Michelle (Marie Tifo), and her mentally handicapped uncle, Guy (Germain Houde). They make a living delivering firewood to rich people's resort homes. Michelle, in her early 30s, is dating the town's good-natured middle-aged cop, Maurice, who provides her with restaurant meals and some cigarettes in exchange for occasional sex.
Her daughter, Manon, is absorbed with reading Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights. Her own grand passion is with her mother, in a relationship characterized by anger and clumsy tenderness. The girl reacts bitterly when her mother tells her she's pregnant with Maurice's baby ("A baby cop? You make me sick.") Manon wants her mother to herself. Men - especially Uncle Guy, who drinks, steals money and gets into trouble - are impediments.
In the depths of the tax-
shelter years, this cheaply made homegrown film (the budget was $625,000) swept the 1980 Genies with eight prizes, knocking out Tribute, its big $11-million competitor with American stars. The film opened in New York on Christmas Day, an event attended by Elia Kazan and writer-director Joseph Mankiewicz ( All About Eve), a second cousin to the Canadian director Francis Mankiewicz. The film was also selected as Canada's foreign-language Oscar nominee that year. Canadian critics, English and French, were generally ecstatic.
U.S. reviews were respectable, if qualified. Janet Maslin in The New York Times admired the "extraordinary vitality of the characters" but felt the film remained "at the vignette level." David Kehr of the Chicago Reader, who called it a "curiosity," felt Mankiewicz wasn't sufficiently in control of the film's swings
between "sentimental miserabilism and freezing irony."
Today, the film feels less like a masterpiece than a happy meeting of sensibilities to create something original - a generous-spirited melodrama. The script was the first screenwriting attempt by Quebec novelist Réjean Ducharme, a three-time Governor-General's Award-winning writer and a figure highly regarded in French literary circles, but as reclusive as J.D. Salinger. Kevin N. LaForest wrote in the Montreal Film Journal: "Through the film, you can feel Ducharme's characteristic uneasiness in society. Here's a guy who probably can't fit in the restrictions of life, and his characters share that feeling."
Director Mankiewicz viewed himself as part of the Elia Kazan school, a director who specialized in family relationship movies. Born in Shanghai in 1944 after his German-
Jewish parents had fled Nazi Germany, and trained in film school in London, the director, too, saw himself as an outsider. In 1981, he told a Globe and Mail interviewer that Manon represents the romantic world view and Michelle the reality principle. "I have an affinity with Manon," Mankiewicz said. "Manon is the filmmaker and Michelle is the everyday person in me. I am a dreamer."
Key to the film's success is the superb cinematography of Michel Brault (who also shot two of the other top-ranked Quebec films, Claude Jutra's Mon Oncle Antoine and his own Les Ordres). With his impeccable camerawork and lighting, Brault creates a lyrical rather than naturalistic tone to the film. The soft autumn browns of the trees are in contrast to the sharp edges of the characters and Manon's tumultuous inner life.
The face that dominates the movie is that of actress Marie Tifo (still a star of Quebec television and movies), who won an acting award at the Chicago Film Festival as well as a Genie for her performance. With her angular, mercurial features, she can look both coarse and lovely. Her character is always aware of her sexual appeal, but her deeper emotional life is tied up in caring for her brother. Ultimately, she's the prize for which Manon feels she must do battle
Les Bons Débarras suffered the usual bureaucratic indignities of a small Canadian film that didn't fit into any established genre. The CBC refused to buy it and the Canadian Film Development Corp., the forerunner of Telefilm Canada, declined to help finance the film's expensive New York opening. Mankiewicz felt insulted, though he subsequently had his biggest popular successes at the CBC with the real-life crime dramas Love and Hate (1990) and Conspiracy of Silence (1991). But when Mankiewicz died of cancer in 1993, at age 49, Les Bons Débarras was still seen as the artistic pinnacle of his career - and today, it still has a distinctive integrity. Somewhere between the inward, poetic Quebec cinema of the sixties and seventies and the more urban, social films that followed, Les Bons Débarras has art and heart.
Les Bons Débarras screens at the Royal Cinema (608 College St.) from Nov. 30, then at the Canadian Film Institute in Ottawa, Winnipeg Film Group's Cinematheque and Vancouver's Pacific Cinémathèque in January and February.