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Quebec filmmaker Sébastien Pilote in Toronto on Sept. 11.Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

It was by complete chance that filmmaker Sébastien Pilote reread Maria Chapdelaine, the classic novel of rural Quebec. He was filming in the Lac Saint-Jean area and staying in a borrowed cottage where the 1914 novel, a short and romantic tale often assigned to teenagers in high-school French classes, was literally the only book in the house.

“On the shelf, there were a few magazines, old phone books and one book – Maria Chapdelaine,” he said in French during an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Or maybe it wasn’t chance, but destiny. After all, in 2011 when Pilote made his first feature, The Salesman, he named one of the characters after Maria’s dreamy fiancé, the lumberjack François Paradis. And Maria Chapdelaine is set in Pilote’s neck of the woods: The filmmaker grew up in Saint-Ambroise, a village in Saguenay, and now lives and works in nearby Chicoutimi. So perhaps it was inevitable, after writing and directing three award-winning features about contemporary characters in rural settings, that he would turn his hand to an adaptation, directing the period drama that opens across Canada this week.

“People assume it was an assignment, [but] it was me who sought it out,” he said. “The novel has had three [film] adaptations, but there are essential things that have not been explored.”

What Pilote discovered on rereading was that the novel was more subtle and ambiguous than its reputation suggests. Although author Louis Hémon was a newly arrived French immigrant, former journalist and roving labourer – who died in a train accident near Chapleau, Ont., before he could witness the success of his book – Maria Chapdelaine has usually been interpreted as a nationalistic paean to agricultural Quebec and the habitant life. Maria lives with her hard-working family in an isolated cabin in the woods, where her father attempts to carve a farm from the bush.

Sara Montpetit in a scene from the film Maria Chapdelaine.Courtesy of MK2 Mile End

But Pilote rejects the notion that the novel celebrated an unchanging, conservative Quebec – an idea summarized in the book through a speech attributed to “the voice of the land” and describing the endurance of the habitants and their culture over centuries.

Maria Chapdelaine is always associated with the famous phrase, ‘In the country of Quebec, nothing has changed,’ blah, blah, blah. I don’t know why – it’s one sentence among many,” Pilote said. “Louis Hémon was not at all conservative – he was fleeing bourgeois life. He had fathered an illegitimate child and was fleeing to Canada. He was an adventurer.”

In suggesting a more contemporary take on the novel, one of the first things Pilote wanted to address was the main character’s age. Previous film adaptations, from 1934, 1950 and 1983, had cast known stars in the title role, with a 33-year-old Carole Laure playing Maria in the 1980s.

“In the three films that have been made, the three actresses were all over 30 – that transforms Maria Chapdelaine in the public imagination into a prude, a kind of Virgin Mary or old maid. It’s not that at all – it’s her first spring, her first summer of love.”

Pilote emphasized the character’s youth and freshness by choosing newcomer Sara Montpetit, who was only 18 and still studying at a Montreal CEGEP when she was cast in the role.

The film is an adaptation of author Louis Hémon's 1914 novel. Sébastien Raymond/Courtesy of MK2 Mile End

Montpetit’s quiet performance as a shy teen observing and learning from those around her is complemented by rich work from Hélène Florent in the role of her practical mother and Sébastien Ricard as her father, the aspiring dreamer who has hauled the family further and further north in search of good land. The film stresses that clearing land is back-breaking work, showing the family and a hired hand felling trees, pulling stumps and hauling brush. It also depicts how isolated they are – in the absence of year-round roads – from stores, the local doctor, a parish church and even any neighbours.

And yet, Montpetit is costumed in a fresh pink dress and pretty straw hat for blueberry picking in the woods. Hémon’s story was a romance, after all, and Pilote was not about to give up cinematic effects: “The film is very manufactured. I’m attracted to a certain classicism,” he said. “We worked a lot with candlelight, but there was always artificial light. I want to make cinema.”

Another preconception Pilote wanted to address in his film was the popular notion that Maria is choosing among three suitors – the handsome François, the dull farm boy next door, and a wealthy outsider who has sold his inheritance to seek work in Massachusetts – representing a choice among true love, familial duty and material wealth. He notes that after Francois’ death, her choice is between the second two, and says he did not want to make the characters black-and-white. He points out Lorenzo Suprenant, the exotic exile from the United States, is not actually wealthy: He is working in a mill in Massachusetts and is offering Maria the life of an urban homemaker. For Pilote, what he really represents is the loss of French language and culture that would inevitably follow a move to the United States.

When Maria does make her choice, she tells her suitor she will marry not the coming spring, but the one after – a postponement that Pilote finds intriguingly ambiguous.

“I find it odd that people associate the novel with something fixed or static. It’s a novel about metamorphosis – the seasons change, and Maria, who begins as a girl, becomes a woman.”

Maria Chapdelaine screens in theatres starting Sept. 24.

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