First stop in Cannes: the Carlton, for champagne.
Monique Mercure had arrived in France’s film mecca and she was going to enjoy it. For a Montrealer who had grown up idolizing the French screen icon Arletty, this was the big time.
The fact that she was arriving as a star would make the bubbles taste all the sweeter. Ms. Mercure played the female lead in J.A. Martin photographe, a period love story by the director Jean Beaudin, one of two Quebec productions up for the Palme d’Or in 1977 (a breakthrough for the province’s budding movie industry).
For all that fanfare, the 46-year-old actress didn’t expect to win anything. She wasn’t a dazzling newcomer like Isabelle Huppert or a living legend like Sophia Loren. So after 72 hours of palm trees and paparazzi, it was back to Montreal, days before the awards ceremony. She was due to anchor a stage performance in her hometown, anyway.
When the message to call Cannes finally came, she thought it was because she had forgotten something there. But no: the best actress prize was hers (shared, in a quirk of the festival, with the American Shelley Duvall) – a first for a Canadian.
She would later say she regretted not accepting the award in person. But colleagues at the time remember that, for Ms. Mercure, who died on May 17 of throat cancer, there was no question of abandoning her post at the theatre.
The grande dame of Canadian acting helped bring Quebec cinema to new heights and to a new, global public at a revolutionary time for the province. But in the course of her 60-year career, Ms. Mercure also remained rooted in the more local culture of the Montreal stage, becoming a darling of her home audience first and foremost.
The evening the award was announced, she celebrated, when the curtain closed, by drinking beer with her cast mates.
She was born Monique Émond, on Nov. 14, 1930, to an upper-middle-class Montreal family, recently brought down a peg by the Great Depression. The Émonds’ reduced station didn’t stop them from appreciating high culture and the finer things, Ms. Mercure would tell the journalist Franco Nuovo. Her mother, a professional concert pianist, dressed young Monique like the English princesses, Elizabeth and Margaret, and encouraged her daughter’s passion for the cello.
The precocious actor would also write plays and mount them for her parents, charging five cents a show. Even then, she was so fascinated by the expressive possibilities of the human face that her mother would tell her to stop staring at other people when they rode the streetcar.
Monique received her primary schooling from the Sisters of Congrégation Notre-Dame – a religious education was common at the time – then studied music at what became l'École Vincent-d’Indy.
In 1949, she married the composer Pierre Mercure. The couple moved to France and had three children before separating in 1958.
The name Mercure would be a lasting legacy of the relationship. The actress made no apologies for keeping the marquee-ready moniker. She took it in a “heartbeat,” she said, because it was so beautiful. Monique Mercure – eye-catching, musical, mercurial – was a name fit for a star.
Back in Quebec, she studied acting at the Montreal Drama Studio, to distract herself, she later said, from the sorrow of her breakup. But she would also use that pain to fuel the deeply emotive performances for which she became known. “I have a heart full of tears,” she once said.
Early in her career, she established herself as a major talent, appearing in standards of the classical and modern theatrical repertoire, like Aeschylus’s The Libation Bearers in 1959 and Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera in 1960. Her brimstone eyes could express rage, mischief or joy in a flash; her voice belted out screams of indignation, cooed like a wounded lover and even sang passably. (“She always said it was very ironic that she would die from a cancer of the throat,” said her friend Simon Brault, chief executive officer of the Canada Council for the Arts. “‘Live by the sword, die by the sword,’ she said.”)
In that era, Québécois auteurs of the stage and screen were still finding their voice – “We leaned more on the culture of France,” said the theatre critic Raymond Bertin – but when they did, fuelled by the province’s liberalizing, nationalist Quiet Revolution, those artists found plenty of roles for Ms. Mercure.
As the glamorous wife of the town notary in Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine (1971), she stuns the locals into reverential silence when she strides into the general store, smouldering in a fur-lined coat and feathered cap – then permanently enters the fantasy life of two teenage boys who spy her trying on an extravagant black silk girdle.
The film depicts rural Quebec during the repressive years of Maurice Duplessis’s government, a world of millionaire bosses, English-speaking foremen, hypocritical priests and stifled dreams. Ms. Mercure’s career traced the province’s emergence from that era, as it erupted in the 1960s with an almost impossibly rich cultural output and new, modern mores.
“She was among those who fought for creative freedom, to consider women as fully formed artists, to abolish censorship,” said Lorraine Pintal, artistic director of the Théâtre du Nouveau Monde. “I associate her with a generation of revolution, of resistance.”
Ms. Mercure’s emergence as a “name” in her own right began controversially, with 1970’s erotic farce Deux femmes en or, in which she played a bored housewife who begins seducing strange men in her suburban home. The film was a succès de scandale in Quebec, drawing an estimated 1.5 million paying viewers – about a quarter of the province’s population at the time – but the movie’s explicit sex and copious nudity caused Ms. Mercure to regret the role.
Her next cinematic coup was not marred by any such second thoughts. In J.A. Martin photographe, she played the wife of a rural, turn-of-the-century photographer, who insists on joining her husband on his summer rounds, taking pictures of farmers and mill workers in the Quebec countryside – a journey that broadens her horizons and heals the couple’s relationship.
Marcel Sabourin, who played her husband, recently marvelled at Ms. Mercure’s turn in the film, recalling to the newspaper La Presse how “her performance rang true throughout, like a note of music.”
When it became clear she had won best actress for the film, there were thoughts of recasting her part in the Montreal play so she could travel to Cannes, but Ms. Mercure dismissed the idea. “That’s where we see people’s values,” Ms. Pintal said. “She felt she had a responsibility to the public. They expected to have a meeting with Monique Mercure and she wasn’t going to miss it.”
Ever well-mannered, Ms. Mercure would downplay the award in media appearances, saying that all it meant was “a lot of interviews.” But in the days following the announcement she acknowledged the significance of the honour, saying it redounded to all Quebeckers.
Hollywood came calling in the years that followed, with small roles in Robert Altman’s Quintet and Claude Chabrol’s The Blood of Others. Her fluent English also landed her major roles in anglophone theatre, including a part in an Atlanta production of Tennessee Williams’s The Night of the Iguana. The legendary American playwright attended the show one evening and gave her notes backstage, she told Radio-Canada. “You’re missing a few laughs, Monique,” he said. “Which?!” she replied. “I can fix it.” When Mr. Williams saw her a second time, he revised his verdict. “You got your laughs.”
Some of her friends were disappointed she didn’t push for a bigger international career, but in the end it was the Quebec stage that held her heart. “I’m not sure she wanted a different career,” Mr. Brault said. “She was not one to have big plans. She followed her instinct.”
That instinct led to an astonishing range of roles in plays ranging from Molière’s Tartuffe to the revolutionary study of working-class Montreal women that was Michel Tremblay’s Les Belles-soeurs. She had no trouble handling the different registers of classical and contemporary theatre, Mr. Brault said. “What was amazing about Monique and that generation was that they had a rigour, a classical training: They knew the codes of conformity, but they breached them with impunity – because they knew them!”
Even as her fame grew, Ms. Mercure held herself to punishingly high standards. She suffered from serious stage fright – though much less when performing in English: “The language was like a screen,” she said – and remembered her notices years later with the frissons of an ingénue. “Electrifying Electra,” wrote one Toronto critic. “Ohhh, that made me happy.”
Though she played a put-upon housewife in some of her most memorable performances, Ms. Mercure was anything but in her personal life. She became director of the National Theatre School in 1991 and ran it with a formidable toughness, Mr. Brault recalled. When a provincial bureaucrat threatened her funding, she told him, “If you continue, we’ll close the damn school.”
Ms. Mercure’s later years saw her garlanded with honours, but she continued earning important parts in film and on stage. David Cronenberg cast her in his award-winning Naked Lunch (1991) (after Anjelica Huston passed on the role, Ms. Mercure said). In the mid-2000s she played the matriarch of a cheese-making family in the hit Radio-Canada TV show Providence, which ran for seven seasons – a small-screen breakout success for the septuagenarian that she cherished, said fellow actor Monique Miller.
Only in her mid-80s did Ms. Mercure begin to slow down – “Until I was 83, I was 30,” she once said – and her acting career ultimately spanned six decades, a remarkable achievement in an industry that prizes youth and novelty.
“What’s hardest in this profession is lasting,” Ms. Pintal said. “I think we can say that Monique Mercure lasted.”
She leaves her daughter Michèle, a grandson, a great-grandson, a great-great-grandson, her brother Michel Émond and her sister Nicole Émond.
Her death in May was bracketed by the loss of two other stars of that era, the singer Renée Claude and the actress Michelle Rossignol, leading some in Quebec artistic circles to mourn the passing of a generation that forged their national culture. “She certainly helped build modern Quebec,” Ms. Pintal said.
In the 1970s, Ms. Mercure declared herself a separatist, like many Quebec artists of the time. But she was suspicious of rigid ideological projects, and indeed accepted appointments to both l’Ordre national of Quebec and the Order of Canada (she had the highest rank, companion) for her contributions to the dramatic arts. In the end, Mr. Brault recalled, it wasn’t politics or awards but the work that mattered to her most.
"Monique often said, ‘Mon pays c’est le théâtre.’”