It was the late 1960s and Quebec’s Quiet Revolution was in full swing. The influence of the Catholic Church was waning and traditional social mores were being challenged when it came to marriage and sexual relations.
Claude Fournier was making a good living producing and directing short documentaries and TV ads at Onyx Films when his wife and collaborator Marie-José Raymond came up with the concept of making a feature film about two women experimenting with their new-found sexual freedom.
“She wanted to demonstrate that women could choose how they had sex,” recalled Guy Fournier, Claude’s twin brother, and a partner in Onyx Films. Guy thought it was too daring a concept, which could endanger Onyx Films’s commercial business.
“It was probably the only fight I ever had with my brother,” Guy recalled. He lost the argument and his brother went on to make Deux Femmes en Or, a romping sex farce about two bored neighbours tired of their husbands, who entertain every man who happens by, including repairmen and delivery people. Though it never was a favourite with critics, the film was a huge hit at the box office.
Estimates are that as many as two million tickets to the film were sold in Quebec alone, equivalent to a third of the province’s population at the time. “We made a pile of money,” Guy recalled. Along with other similar films produced in Quebec in the same period, the genre was dubbed “maple syrup porno” by Variety, the American entertainment publication.
Deux Femmes en Or was the first of a dozen feature films directed by Claude Fournier, a prolific filmmaker, novelist, biographer and poet who died in Montreal on March 16 following a heart attack. He was 91.
Claude Fournier was born in Waterloo, a town in Quebec’s Eastern Townships, on July 23, 1931, the son of Omer Fournier, an accountant, and his wife, Juliette, a milliner. In addition to his twin brother, he had two younger brothers and two younger sisters.
Following a Quebec classical college education in Montreal and Saint-Hyacinthe, Mr. Fournier began work as a journalist at La Tribune, a newspaper in Sherbrooke, moving on to Radio-Canada and the National Film Board in Montreal in the 1950s where he gained experience as a cameraman and filmmaker.
Following a two-year stint in New York City, where he worked with Drew Associates, the documentary film production house, Mr. Fournier returned to Montreal and began his long career in Quebec cinema. In addition to directing films and writing screenplays, he was usually his own cinematographer.
Following the success of Deux Femmes en Or, Mr. Fournier was part of the heyday of Quebec film, highlighted by his 1983 adaptation of The Tin Flute, the award-winning novel of Montreal working-class life, written by Gabrielle Roy.
Marilyn Lightstone, who starred in the film, said that the opportunity to shoot a film in both English and French was a “once in a lifetime opportunity,” even though her performance was eventually dubbed in French. “He was a wonderful director and for me it was an exciting time.” The film was featured at the Moscow International Film Festival, where Ms. Lightstone won an Award of Merit from the Committee of Soviet Women.
Mr. Fournier also acted as assistant director for the 1977 Italo-Canadian production A Special Day, starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, which won France’s César award for best foreign film.
Les Tisserands du Pouvoir, Mr. Fournier’s epic story about the migration of French-Canadians to New England in the late 1800s and based on his own novel, won a Gémeaux Award for best direction and a Genie for Best Screenplay. It was shot as both a feature film and as a TV miniseries but PBS, the U.S. network, declined to buy it after some initial interest.
There were disappointments as well. Alien Thunder, Mr. Fournier’s big-budget Western was shot in Saskatchewan and released in 1974. Based on a screenplay by W.O. Mitchell, the legendary Western Canadian writer, it told the story of a Cree warrior who was hunted down and killed by the RCMP in a shootout after stealing a government-owned steer.
But after changes to the script, Mr. Mitchell withdrew his name from the project and Donald Sutherland, the film’s star, later called Mr. Fournier’s direction of the project “wretched.” The RCMP, which had originally seen the film as a centrepiece of its 1973 centennial celebrations, withdrew its backing. Alien Thunder disappeared with little trace.
A fervent Quebec nationalist, Mr. Fournier also wrote a biography of Parti Québécois leader René Lévesque, Portrait d’un homme seul, a bestseller after it was published in 2011, two years after Mr. Fournier wrote his own autobiography. And he served for four years as a municipal councillor in the town of St. Paul d’Abbotsford, where he lived for over 50 years.
Even though he made his last feature in 2004, Mr. Fournier remained active, shooting TV series and engaging in a range of other interests. He and Marie-José helped found Éléphant, an ambitious project to digitize Quebec cinema and led it for a decade. Sponsored and financed by Québécor Inc., the Montreal-based media company, the project spent years tracking down and digitizing almost 225 Quebec films.
He continued with other projects as well, including a 2018 documentary about his friend, Quebec theatre director André Brassard. And Mr. Fournier never stopped being immersed in his craft, deciding at 90 to learn a new digital editing software.
A man who was passionate about his beliefs, including ardent support of Quebec independence, Mr. Fournier became a fervent backer of Ukraine following the Russian invasion last year. He and his wife became part of a daily demonstration for the Ukrainian cause in front of the Russian consulate in downtown Montreal alongside Serge Sasseville, a friend and Montreal city councillor, who lives across the street.
Every day at noon, the Fourniers and several other demonstrators would appear in front of the consulate waving Ukrainian flags. After blasting a recording of the Ukrainian national anthem for several minutes, Mr. Sasseville would shout Slava Ukraini (Glory to Ukraine). Enthusiastic chanting and shouting would ensue. “Claude was there every day,” Mr. Sasseville said, enduring constant efforts by Russian consular staff to disrupt their actions.
“When you fight for a cause, a special link is created,” Mr. Sasseville added.
Mr. Fournier leaves his wife, Marie-José; son, Martin; daughter, Emmanuelle; three grandchildren; and his brothers, Guy, Jean-Pierre and Daniel.