Whale in a Shoe Box Communal Life, Self-Surrender and Tree-Hugging Routines in a Revolutionary Québec By Ralph Elawani. Pierre Maheu took his own life on Labor Day’s eve, September 3, 1979. Around the same time, the results of the first polls pertaining to the Parti Quebecois’s proposal to engage dialogue with Canada concerning Quebec’s independence were published...
Pierre Maheu took his own life on Labor Day’s eve, September 3, 1979. Around the same time, the results of the first polls pertaining to the Parti Quebecois’s proposal to engage dialogue with Canada concerning Quebec’s independence were published. The rather disappointing results for those who dreamt of a new country arrived only a few weeks after Maheu had accepted a teaching position at l’Université du Québec à Montreal’s faculty of French literature. Maheu, who had travelled to Egypt in 1978 to do research for a book on the topic of death and immortality a topic he had become obsessed with towards the end of his life had been hired by Conceptat Inc, an advertising agency appointed by the Parti Quebecois to promote the 1980 Referendum. The 40 year-old intellectual would also be in charge of drafting the Livre blanc sur l‘avenir constitutionnel du Québec (Québec-Canada: A New Deal. The Québec Government Proposal for a New Partnership between Equals: Sovereignty-Association). The proposal, refused by 59.56% of the population read as follows:
"The Government of Quebec has made public its proposal to negotiate a new agreement with the rest of Canada, based on the equality of nations; this agreement would enable Quebec to acquire the exclusive power to make its laws, levy its taxes and establish relations abroad in other words, sovereignty and at the same time to maintain with Canada an economic association including a common currency; any change in political status resulting from these negotiations will only be implemented with popular approval through another referendum; on these terms, do you give the Government of Quebec the mandate to negotiate the proposed agreement between Quebec and Canada?"
A kick in the teeth that left open a huge gash that never completely healed and which paved the way for a cynicism that embalmed the following decades. A second referendum led to an extremely tight result but yet another NO (50.58%) in October 1995.
Prior to his experience with Le Parti Quebecois, Maheu had dabbled in politics with a historically fundamental magazine that hammered the notion of being Quebecois instead of French-Canadian in the popular vernacular. Indeed, Maheu co-founded Parti Pris in 1963 with a group of young writers that included André Major, Paul Chamberland, Jean-Marc Piotte and André Brochu. Parti Pris’s official statement was clear: Quebec needs a revolution to become an independent, secular and socialist state. This left wing publication gave birth to Les Editions Parti Pris, a publishing house that put out the first novel written in joual (Quebecois argot), Jacques Renaud’s novella Le Cassé, in 1964. Parti Pris’s mission, to provide a voice for the voiceless people of Quebec and to condemn political buffooneries, was to remain a constant motto throughout Maheu’s work. Ironically enough, Maheu is probably best remembered nowadays for his work at what was initially a propaganda tool for the Canadian Government during World War II: The National Film Board of Canada.
Like the vast majority of Quebec’s most acclaimed directors from the ’60s and ’70s Gilles Carle, Gilles Groulx, Pierre Perreault, Denys Arcand, Claude Jutra, Claude Fournier, Michel Brault, Jean-Pierre Lefebvre et cetera Maheu made a name for himself at the NFB. But whereas directors such as Carle and Groulx had moved from cinéma direct to auteur cinema towards the late ’60s, Maheu’s feature films were both shot with the idea of the camera as a "fly on the wall." The young intellectual had played in Denis Héroux’s Jusqu‘au Cou (Héroux is nowadays remembered as the godfather of Maple Syrup Porn via his 1969 film Valérie) and Gilles Groulx’s 1964 tour de force Le Chat dans le sac, before producing Jacques Leduc’s controversial 1969 film Cap d‘espoir.
This episode in the life of a revolutionary Quebecois student came out only in 1975, five years after the October Crisis, due to the rather sensible subject matter of the film. To ensure that he was rubbing it in properly, Maheu produced another pipe bomb in 1970: Denys Arcand’s inquiry on the textile industry in Quebec, On est au Coton (Cottonmill, Treadmill). Arcand’s documentary was banned for political and legal reasons until a censored version came out in 1976. The film was finally reissued on DVD in its original uncut version in 2004.
Maheu spent almost five years living in a commune and experimenting with what he called "human ecology" from 1973 to 1978, prior to becoming disillusioned with communal life; a subject that also inspired his second feature film, L‘interdit; a harsh look at a commune built by a disillusioned psychotherapist who surrounds himself with former patients, mostly schizophrenic women. Maheu’s first feature film Le bonhomme (1972) is an exploration of recurrent themes in his writing at Parti Pris; an existentialist take on the Quebecois family nucleus and the repercussions of a truncated familial organization in favor of an alternative lifestyle.
Le bonhomme follows the evolution of Claude Lachapelle from his former life in St-Henri, a working-class neighborhood of Montreal, to a commune in the countryside, where he experiences what he believes to be freedom from "The Man" and from a 20 year-long fight with Yolande, his wife and the mother of his ten children. Maheu’s documentary does not explain how Claude came into contact with alternative lifestyles. However, according to an article written by Robert Lévesque and published on March 25th 1973 in Québec - Presse, Claude Lachapelle’s meeting with Maheu is partly the result of a Mothers of Invention outdoor performance during a rainy day in 1969. Parti Pris co-founder Paul Chamberland (also featured in Le bonhomme) met Lachapelle’s son at the show when the young man sought shelter from the rain under Chamberland’s umbrella. Lachapelle’s son came into contact with the commune and his father soon got involved. Maheu became fascinated with this 40 year-old man who would bring his kids and bags full of pipes, pot and hashish to the commune. Interestingly enough, although Lachapelle’s working class background clearly clashed with Maheu’s middle class intellectual milieu, the latter could not help but see a reflection of himself in Lachapelle. Maheu consequently decided to use Lachapelle’s fight for emancipation as a trope for Quebec’s fight for independence and followed the man for five months with a 16mm camera. Le bonhomme opens in media res with striking Easy Rider imagery that exposes Claude riding his motorcycle, sporting oversized shades and a bandana, while Red Mitchell’s blues rock licks makes one nod in approval of this lone rider of La Belle Province. The subsequent scene skips to a Christian baptism scene during which the soon-to-be-hippified ex-bus driver proceeds to light a cigarette straight from a candle. In the meantime, Maheu follows Claude to the bank, where he withdraws all the money he has to, as he puts it, keep only enough for survival and give the rest to his wife. Lachapelle’s quest for freedom is embodied in the phrase Viens, un nouvel homme va se lever (Come, A New Man Will Rise); a spin off Jacques Michel’s song Viens, un nouveau jour va se lever (Come, A New Day Will Rise).
The audience’s first encounter with Claude’s wife reveals a woman who clings onto debauchery, pessimism and cynicism as a way to dodge the surrealist situation she must face. Maheu’s writings were particularly critical of the father figure in Quebec. His vision was that the patriarch was somewhat of a straw man, a bogus authority figure that smashed his fist on the kitchen table once in a while but who mostly relegated important decisions to his wife. This defective father figure and its feminine counterpart is furthermore played out in many of Maheu’s contemporaries’ work, including Gilles Carle’s La vraie nature de Bernadette (1972) and Parti Pris co-founder André Major’s classic 1964 novel Le cabochon.
Paradoxically, what Maheu saw as the expression of the lack authority represented by the drunk man overpowered by his beer -a sign that any of his attempted evasions are self-destructive is overtly more present in Yolande’s character: a chain-smoking alcoholic mother of ten who got married at fifteen because, as Claude puts it, first of all, she was already pregnant and second, she had a great ass. In many ways, the dialogues are so fitting that they could have been written out to support Maheu’s theories, but the intensity of the anger and the nonsense of the ribaldry on display is way too genuine to be such. Yolande’s graphic details regarding her sex life with Claude all of which is told in front of the kids is a priceless depiction of a mother who has lost her sacrosanctity.
One of the most intense sequences is played out as Yolande disrupts the whole idea of cinéma direct during a fight with Claude, by asking Pierre to go get him before he leaves the house. The camera then zooms on a confused Maheu with headphones over his ears.
Claire Boyer’s stunning editing work contrasts the infernal life in the shabby St-Henri apartment where Lachapelle goes back a few times to visit Yolande, with the esoteric and eccentric life of the commune where Claude philosophies on God, whom he refers to as "Le bonhomme," hangs out with Paul Chamberland, smokes hashish with his son, swims naked with his other kids and attends a Lanza Del Vasto conference. Maheu’s film leaves it open to interpretation whether or not Claude’s epiphany is plausible in the long run. Although, judging by the drastic nosedive that communal culture took in Quebec, the whole adventure was at best, an example that an awakening to alternative lifestyles is possible for every single social strata and walks of life; an idea that many of Maheu’s peers, such as Claude Jutra in Wow, Robin Spry in Prologue and Jacques Godbout in Kid Sentiment had associated to a younger generation.
This opens a new debate: what role is Claude really playing in Le bonhomme and how liberated is he once he is freed from his St-Henri rat nest? A quick perusal at his attempt at teaching the younger commune dwellers about life and God and nature reveals that social structures are not completely erased in Claude’s paradise. His newly acquired tree-hugging routine and his nubile new girlfriend might simply be part of yet another set of not-that-flexible social structures kicking in, but based upon Claude’s hegemony over his environment. Among all the different bonhomme figures at play in the film, whether it is God, the priest, the State or Claude’s superiors, Claude might be what he dreads the most: just another watchman. As the film closes on shots of dolls and Beatles cut outs on his daughter’s walls, one can only wonder if Claude finally met his bonhomme.
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