On a hot summer day in the hipster Montreal neighbourhood of Mile-Ex, Québécois filmmaker Maxime Giroux is drinking an iced coffee on the steps of an evangelical church.
“I actually shot a scene here in Felix and Meira,” the 42-year-old says, motioning to the small building across the street from his local coffee shop. He’s referring to his own 2014 romantic drama, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and was Canada’s official selection for the Academy Awards that year, concerning a forbidden romance between a young Hasidic woman and a middle-aged atheist in the Anglophone area of this Montreal neighbourhood.
“It’s impossible to have real Hasidic Jewish actors, so 30 guys put their costumes and fake beards on and walked across the street. When they came in here, the guy at the church said, ‘Oh no, they cannot come in!’ I said, ‘Oh, but they’re not real!’"
Cultural differences and the oft-masqueraded search for identity are Giroux’s chief cinematic obsessions. Despite the serious themes in his work, Giroux presents like the Muppet-y host of a children’s TV program, dressed today in a colourful shirt with parrots on it. Raised in a staunch separatist household in the Montreal suburbs of Laval, Giroux says he now feels torn between his heritage and the Anglophone community he currently inhabits. As a Québécois filmmaker, he’s inherited the crushing responsibility of how to keep his culture alive.
“I grew up where everyone around me voted ‘yes’ in the 1995 referendum, but nobody in my generation feels that way anymore,” he says. “I don’t want to be rude, but we were way luckier. I’m in a position where I can understand why other cultures, languages and difference is so important to our world. Nobody wants to fight for that anymore.”
The dominance of Anglo-Saxon culture, which Giroux feels is the root of all capitalism, is the focus of his new feature, The Great Darkened Days, which will premiere at TIFF on Sept. 10. The highly surreal, anachronistic drama follows a French Charlie Chaplin impersonator named Philippe (Felix and Meira star Martin Dubreuil) trying to make his way through a dystopian war zone in a dusty western frontier town. It’s The Road with more separatism, filmed against the striking mountainous landscape of Ely, Nev., by Giroux’s long-time cinematographer Sara Mishara.
A deliberately timeless postmodern fable with images that will creep into your subconscious, it offers a viewing experience that feels like trying to thread back together the pieces of a nightmare. Just consider the moment Philippe kicks up dust during an enforced Chaplin-esque dance routine, scored to R.E.M.’s Everybody Hurts.
Along his thankless journey, Phillipe encounters unbearable cruelty at the hands of his bilingual captors. The film’s ensemble offers several notable performances by actors both established (Sarah Gadon is mesmerizing as a woman keeping a human slave as a dog) and emerging (Good Time’s Buddy Duress and American Horror Story’s Cody Fern make a strong impression). Mostly self-financed by the filmmaker and producers Sylvain Corbeil and Nancy Grant (also at the helm of Xavier Dolan’s highly anticipated English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan), the production was described by Giroux as “film school 20 years later.” His acclaimed producers doubled as his PAs; Mishara works painterly magic with mere available light; and Giroux described his own location scouting through the wilds of California and Nevada as the highlight of his career.
This came after a particularly dispiriting period of trying to make what would’ve been his follow-up to Felix and Meira – a thriller about a female indie rock musician from Montreal who moves to China to spy on a rich foreign businessman (“like Grimes now,” jokes Giroux about Tesla founder Elon Musk’s current beloved) – only to be denied by Quebec’s film financing system SODEC. This rejection by his native Quebec almost made him abandon cinema forever.
“This film is about a French Canadian guy who doesn’t want to fight a war, but the war is inside him,” Giroux says. “The Québécois are so proud when someone makes it in America because we as a society are teenagers – we don’t have much confidence.”
“What I want is to be free, which is something that I haven’t felt for years doing music videos and commercials. I’m lost like he’s lost: Should I go make money in Hollywood doing films I don’t believe in, or stay here doing TV commercials I don’t believe in?”
If you want to talk about capitalist Hollywood takeovers, you don’t have to look much further than Giroux’s own backyard. As his compatriots Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve and now Dolan have ascended to directing prestige cable television, big budget sci-fi franchises, and Hollywood A-listers en Anglais, Giroux wonders whether French-Canadian cinema will be abandoned by the next generation just trying to follow in their footsteps. Ironically, the unique differences and cultural specificity that have made these French-Canadian filmmakers such hot properties may only lead Québécois art house to its demise.
“We have the chance to do films that are not made anywhere else in North America, just by thinking about what it means to make art,” Giroux says. “The danger in trying to find the new Denis, Jean-Marc and Xavier is that it’s not something you can build.”
The Great Darkened Days screens at TIFF Sept. 10, 9 p.m., Scotiabank, Sept. 12, 9 a.m., Lightbox; and Sept. 16, 6:45 p.m., Scotiabank