Maple Syrup Porn By Ralph Elawani. French Canadian soft-core from the ’60s and ’70s – otherwise known as maple syrup porn due to its origin – is a cut and dry definition of Quebecois culture from a specific time period...
French Canadian soft-core from the ’60s and ’70s – otherwise known as maple syrup porn due to its origin – is a cut and dry definition of Quebecois culture from a specific time period. Raw, clumsy and sexy enough to give your average textbook French film a ride for its money, this sub-genre, often overlooked with extremely antagonistic prejudices, is nevertheless the work of some of La Belle Province’s most decorated filmmakers as well as unsung heroes.
Although very easy to dismiss, these films actually provide the audience with a realistic account of the period during which they were made by encapsulating elements of underground music, mainstream culture, political undertones and geographic locations that take the viewers out of the urban setting so dear to bohemians and other flâneurs.
Unlike most of the swag that’s been over-promoted in recent Quebecois pop culture, those particular soft-core films had the advantage of being directed by men who had the pulse of their era pounding in their veins. (Examples of these over-promoted abominations mostly include blockbusters starring humorists or TV hosts in search of a second breath for their sagging careers such as: Bon Cop Bad Cop, Les Boys; Les Dangeureux, L’Appât and Les Pieds dans le vide).
In an interview that dates back to December 1972, filmmaker Gilles Carle told French-born Quebecois film critic, poet and novelist Emmanuel Cocke in Un auteur collectif that his films were not to be understood as topical but reflexive. "The only thing I can really do is tell the people that we’re going to look at something together, and starting from there, we can all feel like we’re maybe learning something. [...] I’m a bastard because I live in a bastardized society. I do not aim at stylistic purity; I’m more into significant impurities [...] I’m not against the popularity of a film; I’m against its commercial exploitation." Basically, you need to have a culture to have a counter-culture.
Let’s contextualize and get down to a few essentials.
Whereas 1968 is now regarded as a culminating point of surfeit throughout the world, Quebec had to wait two years to kick out the jams.
In order to cut a long story short, let’s say that Le Front de Liberation du Quebec (FLQ) which the government of Canada came to label as a terrorist group – in the same vein as the IRA, the Basque nationalists of the ETA and to some very exaggerated level, the Black Panthers – kidnapped James Richard Cross, the British Trade Commissioner, as he was leaving his home in October 1970. Five days later, the FLQ kidnapped the Minister of Labour and Vice-Premier of Quebec, Pierre Laporte. Following the denial of some of the FLQ’s demands to the government – which included the liberation of political prisoners, the broadcast and publication of the FLQ Manifesto, and many more – Laporte was executed. The darkest corners of this already open closet full of skeletons are extremely well documented in Michel Brault’s 1974 docu-fiction Les Ordres
What ensued was to change the face of Canadian history forever. In the meantime, the federal government would invoke the War Measures Act. This was the only time; so far, the government used these powers during peacetime. The shit really hit the fan and if you ever encounter anyone from that era who had the slightest artistic inclinations – or leftist political allegiance – chances are that this person will have a story about spending a night in jail.
A fork was stuck in the timeline of Quebec’s history; not only setting the mood but carving a certain cynicism into following decades.
Subsequently, not to be understood as a kind of escapist move from the directors of the era, a crucial element emanating from many post-October Crisis films was the sarcasm and tongue-in-cheek humor, focusing on notorious quotable punch lines and anatomy than on cinematic frills. This move went the opposite direction from the cinema direct of the ’60s where the camera was a fly on the wall.
Indeed, a cinema of the people will always be superior to any topical, egocentric or metaphysical cinema for one thing: human nature does not change. This is precisely where the value of exploitation films from Quebec resides; call it an ugly gimmick, but all of these films encompass so many different cultural spheres that your squabble gets lost in the downward spiral of foul condescension.
Maple syrup porn needs to be understood as the work of a very exclusive band of directors, namely Denis Héroux, Claude Fournier, Roger Cardinal, John Sole (a.k.a. Jason Johnson, a.k.a. John Sone) and to some extend a few others such as Jean Beaudin and Gilles Carle.
The milestone for maple syrup porn is a 1968 feature film directed by Denis Héroux and distributed by Cinepix, entitled Valerie, shot with a budget of less than $100,000; some of which came from the Canadian Film Development Corporation.
Valerie tells the story of a woman (Danielle Ouimet) who leaves behind her life at a convent and ends up getting a job as a stripper. Valerie then quickly morphs into a high-class hooker and ultimately, falls in love with an artist.
Héroux’s next film, L’Initiation, varies the same theme: a young woman falls in love with a married French professor and both of them get it on at a hotel until they go back to their respective partners. Throw in three other young ladies with flirtatious aspirations and you get a film so deliciously sexy that it inspired the ideal patronym for Cinepix’s music division (Initiation Records).
Claude Fournier’s 1970 Deux femmes en or is another landmark of sexploitation films made in Quebec. Fournier’s film tells the tale of two bored-to-death suburban housewives who decide to make use of their time alone in the comfort of their house by trying to seduce every single delivery man, plumber or repair guy who will dare show up on their porch. Featuring a theme song penned by Robert Charlebois – who was regarded as Quebec’s own Bob Dylan/Frank Zappa at the time – Deux femmes en or differed from most sexploitation flicks, becoming an unbelievably high grossing sex comedy with more than two million tickets sold.
Fournier went on to direct a whole stretch of these sex comedies. Other titles include La Pomme, la queue, les pépins; Les Chats Bottés and Les Chiens chauds. In parallel fashion to the so-called lowbrow culture he produced and directed, Fournier became a respected writer, biographer (René Lévesque), screenwriter and editor. During the last couple of years, Fournier and his wife Marie-Josée Raymond teamed up with Quebecois media corporation Quebecor and launched Le Projet Elephant, a philanthropic division of Quebecor Media dedicated solely to preserving Quebecois films and making them available to the public.
Roger Cardinal’s 1971 decadent soft core epic Après Ski is by far the most well-known of this whole leg of sexploitation films. Starring Quebecois sweethearts Céline Lomez, Daniel Pilon, Jeanine Sutto, Francine Grimaldi and a plethora of others including René Angelil (Céline Dion’s hubby), this gem is celebrated as the ultimate bachelor flat flick ever made in Quebec.
Thanks to John Dunning (Denis Héroux’s Valérie was named after Dunning’s daughter) and André Link, Cinepix was by far the most important production company when it came to maple syrup porn. Cinepix also released soundtracks on LPs and 45s, including the soundtrack to Y’a plus de trou à Percé and Viens mon amour. But most importantly, both of them were the driving force behind this whole genre. Furthermore, Cinepix’s constant struggle against censors just went on to prove how the Catholic Church raised its ugly head and pulled the right strings whenever a film was deemed inappropriate content-wise in order to avoid its distribution.
A very iconic element of these films is characteristically the soundtrack; not unlike other cult movies such as Hell’s Belles, The Adventurers and Shaft. Still, the irony of it all is that in many cases musicians were not even credited. The case of Toronto-based funk-rock group Illustration is a good example.
Recently reissued by Montreal-based record label Les Disques Pluton, Après Ski’s soundtrack features songs and vocal tracks by Céline Lomez, Mariette Lévesque, Marc Hamilton and Illustration.
And it’s not like these musicians went on to become famous, record twenty number one hits, clean off their shoulders and drive away on Sunset Strip. For instance, Illustration’s record actually kept them from putting their name on the Après Ski soundtrack back then. We’re not talking about a band that had been relegated to the garage; Rolling Stone magazine compared them to Blood, Sweat and Tears and Chicago.
Other unsung heroes – or vaguely well-known musicians who episodically rubbed shoulders with the soft-core crowd – include: François Cousineau, Michel Paje / Joe Gracy, Diane Dufresne, Patsy Gallant and François Dompierre.
But since I’ve been tossing the coin and tricking it to fall exclusively on its bright side since the beginning of this article, here’s the latent not-so-dark side of the story. In fact, anyone familiar with the film industry has probably seen it coming from miles away.
I spent an afternoon with an exceptionally decorated director of photography whose career ran parallel to the "exploitation network" in the social club world and happy hour-based microcosm of the film world, until it crossed Gilles Carle’s path.
Francois Protat, director of photography on Michel Brault’s Les Ordres, set the record straight on the climate surrounding that particular scene. Protat also worked on throngs of films by Gilles Carle and Jean-Claude Lord (whose 1976 dystopic feature about television, Parlez-nous d’amour, reached a cult status in the years that followed, thanks to quotable punch lines, courtesy of Quebec’s most important playwright of the last 50 years, Michel Tremblay).
At some point during the interview, the latter grabbed my pen, wrote down: 15% 12% 10% and drew asterisks next to some of the names I had written on the paper. Protat said: these guys were able to buy luxurious penthouses in Paris and ranches 45 minutes away from Montreal by taking these percentages off the initial budget of films that were never produced. Add to this what used to be called "tax credits." That is, "Hey, Mr. Dentist, want to fund my film?" "Oh sure!" Bang, here are enough Turkish liras to settle down and write twenty more T&A features.
Well, that’s nothing new under the sun, but when you consider that eight out of ten of these films never saw the light of day... well, it’s overwhelming. At least, until you realize that’s just the way it was.
Most of these guys are pretty well-off now and they made money on productions that were very often aborted or already dead in the shell. But to counter-balance this idea, it is also essential to know that these directors never really sought to build monuments out of exploitation films. Thus, it is necessary to take the whole thing with a grain of salt; in the larger frame of things, maple syrup porn was the tip of an iceberg that melted way before it could get to the Titanic. The importance of this whole genre has a lot more to do historically speaking than artistically or aesthetically speaking.
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