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The Saviour of English-Canadian Cinema...the French?:
(and vice versa)


In an episode of the classic, 1970s American TV series, "Kung Fu", the hero assures a boy of mixed ethnicity that the strongest tree has the most roots. It's a comment that's particularly apropos for a country like Canada (and, indeed, most Western democracies). As immigration changes the face of the nation, we can see this as a strengthening of the country, as Canadians learn they can be strongest when they have the most roots. Of course, all those roots have to learn to get along and not strangle the sap out of each other...but that's a discussion for another day.

This is particularly relevant when discussing the so-called "Two Solitudes" -- the French and English that comprise Canada's apocryphally named two founding peoples (apocryphally because, after all, there were a lot more than just French and English involved in creating Canada).

The question is: wha' happened 'bout that?

When I was growing up, it seemed to me there was always at least a sense of a French presence in English Canadian pop culture -- in non-fiction there was media personality Laurier LaPierre; in fiction francophone characters cropped up here and there (Uncle Raoul in the CBC's "Forest Ranger"s, the bi-cultural cast of CTV's "Snow Job", even Carrie's francophone boyfriend for a season or two of CBC's "Street Legal"); and let's not forget pint-sized Rene Simard's variety series. Today? Of the weekly, English language TV series out there today -- "DaVinci's Inquest", "Corner Gas", etc. -- francophones seem not to exist, not even as guest stars. I think I first began to notice this trend in "Due South" when occasionally Canadian government officials would crop up, some even with French surnames, but always played by anglophone actors (and always White actors, but that's a discussion for another day, too). "North of 60" had francophone Yvan Ponton cropping up occasionally as the mountie's superior, but not "Due South".

And I'm not aware of the trend being any different in French language productions vis a vis anglophone characters.

Even the recent "Ciao Bella" -- a dramedy filmed simultaneously in English and French -- is a little too thorough. In the English version, there is not a word of French spoken. I don't think you'd even realize the characters lived in a predominantly French city if you didn't know Canadian geography. So even when a production nowadays is bilingual...it tries hard not to be, you know, bilingual.

What's bizarre about this gradual widening of the cinematic rift between the Two Solitudes is that it's most glaring in the context of programs otherwise desperate to assert a Canadian identity that's separate from the omnipresent United States of America to the south. In the sitcom, "An American in Canada", much of the humour was based on milking culture clash jokes from the differences between America and Canada, leading to gags about beer potency and the like. But surely the most glaring difference is Canada's -- albeit imperfect -- bilingualism. They could've done jokes about the American hero getting carpaltunnel syndrome from always having to twist cereal boxes around to read the English side; or a gag of him in an airport lounge, unable to understand the garbled voice over the crappy loudspeaker, and reassured that that is because the message was in French, then he hears the English version of the message...and finds it equally garbled and incoherent. Badda-dump!

Now, obviously, I'm overstating the case a little. Francophone commentators like Chantal Hebert and Benoit Aubin appear on the National and singer Celine Dion is quite popular and the CBC series/mini-series, "Snakes & Ladders", featured an English and French cast. But it just seems like the English Canadian pop culture isn't as French as it used to be.

So far, I've been addressing this issue as a kind of spiritual issue -- as in, wouldn't it be nice to be a little more in-your-face about Canada's dual heritage? But that doesn't put food on the table -- so let's talk about the nuts and bolts, practical question as to why English Canadian filmmakers should embrace their inner Frenchman (and why francophones should embrace their inner anglophone).

A couple of years back, the CBC did the bikers/crime-drama, "The Last Chapter", as an English-French co-production. And unlike "Ciao Bella", the English version still had plenty of French spoken (with English sub-titles) and the French version had plenty of English. And it was, apparently, a big success...in both French and English Canada -- so much so that they did a sequel. Recently, the most successful English language Canadian film (domestically) in years was "Mambo Italiano". It was in English, true, but set in Montreal, with many popular French-Canadians in the cast (Ginette Reno, Sophie Lorain) and co-written and directed by Emile Gaudreault with a decidedly Quebecois sensibility to the humour (very broad and facical). What's significant about this is that more than half of "Mambo Italiano"'s box office gross came from French Quebec. Consider that normally, even when a movie does reasonably well in English Canada ("Men With Brooms"), it barely makes a ripple in Quebec, and vice versa. But "Mambo Italiano" grossed a healthy box office by connecting with both audiences.

To understand the significance of that, you have to view this in perspective. Most English Canadian movies bomb, and even when they do O.K., they still lose money because the population just isn't that big. Likewise, although Quebec has a comparatively more successful industry, the dirty secret is that most French Canadian films bomb as well, and even the ones that do well, still hit the glass ceiling that the Quebec population can only cough up so much in ticket sales. Seemingly every year, pundits and prophets wring their hands and gnash their teeth and write learned editorials and discussion papers asking how can Canadian movies make more money at the box office? Yet few seem to notice that there's an untapped market right here within Canada's borders. All they need do is get their minds out of the rigid thinking that there are only English-Canadian movies and French-Canadian movies...and recognize there might be a market for Canadian-Canadian movies!

Obviously, I'm not saying this can be applied to every film, or even most, nor should it be. Art films are limited in their appeal, no matter the language, and some stories are rooted firmly in a unilingual environment (small town life,etc.). But when filmmakers are casting their minds towards the notion of trying to make a commercial blockbuster -- as the makers of "Men With Brooms", "Foolproof", "Seraphin", and others have done -- maybe they should realize there might be money in bridging the two solitudes, not ignoring them.

Want some story ideas that could make use of the English-French thing? O.K., how about these ...

Post-apocalyptic sci-fi as an unilingual anglophone (say, Paul Gross, currently the only major English Canadian box office star) and a unilingual francophone (say Pascale Bussieres, Marie-Josee Croze, or whoever's popular these days in La belle province) must work together to survive zombies (or whatever) and, of course, fall in love.

Or how about a romantic drama where, say, a melancholy francophone widower, perhaps estranged from his family, decides to take dance lessons. There he is partnered with, say, an anglophone housewife whose marriage has become loveless. Neither speaks the others' language very well, and yet, in those few hours a week when they are dancing together, they feel more connected to each other than to anyone else in their lives. Get out the hankies!

Of course, that's running with the French-English idea. There's the other idea, such as in "The Last Chapter", of simply doing a story where some of the characters are French and some English and, depending on the scene, one or the other language is spoken (with the appropriate sub-titles).

Now before I get the inevitable e-mail from someone explaining to me how doing a movie attempting to appeal to both French and English audiences is no guarantee of success, let me say: well, du-uh. Of course it's not a guarantee. If you want guarantees you shouldn't be in something as capricious and uncertain as the entertainment industry.

All I'm saying is two-fold:

1) critics and filmmakers are constantly trying to figure out ways to sell Canadian movies abroad, while ignoring an untapped market in their own backyard -- an audience which, whatever the differences, also share an awful lot of similarities and shared experiences (say "Constitutional discussion" to anyone in either language and watch them run screaming from the room).

2) those same critics and filmmakers are also often struggling to define Canada, and to put their finger on what distinguishes Canada from many other countries, while ignoring the obvious: we're a bilingual, multi-cultural country. But too many people, in English and French, have too much invested in trying to wedge apart the groups (and we know who I'm talking about). Maybe it's time someone started joining them back together. It might be good for the soul...and the box office.

That's all for now,
The Masked Movie Critic

Oct. 24, '04

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