By Marie-Renee Goulet
The province of Quebec has produced many high quality, unique Canadian films and television series in the past decades. One of Quebec industry’s advantages is that the province’s population is a loyal audience and will see pretty much anything that is produced within. Many of the highest grossing films in Canada are from Quebec and unfortunately, not many outside the province sees them and I will be the first to plead guilty to that. Back home, it is sometimes seen as your patriotic duty to have seen certain films, and I got in (good) trouble more than once for not having seen an enormously popular movie when visiting. Many productions have thankfully found an audience worldwide.
It is true, I had not seen many Quebec movies of late and now that I have made up for lost time, I feel I missed out. In fact, I had not seen a few of the movies listed here until I started doing the research to write this article. Why not? Life got busy and not many Quebec films get screened in Calgary. That is no excuse as it is getting easier and easier to stream any movie at any time. In fact, many of the films below can be found in 5 seconds on YouTube. I hope this confession will motivate you to seek out these great stories.
The list of the 20 most-watched movies in Quebec includes 15 comedies. The others were dramas featuring a historical character (such as Maurice Richard) or a particular period in Quebec history (Séraphin, un homme et son péché and C.R.A.Z.Y.). Quebeckers love to live, love, laugh (often, poking fun at themselves), and remember their history. I have lived as many years in the province of Quebec as I have lived elsewhere in Canada. I spent a lot of time explaining Quebec to my western friends or explaining the west when visiting my home province. The politicians and the media are not helping at all. Most of us look for an international destination for a vacation and consume a solid diet of American entertainment. We live in a country of strangers.
Culturally, Quebeckers have a different way of expressing themselves then the rest of Canada. We are very direct, and not much is taboo. I’ve had to make many adjustments when communicating when I moved away as simply translating my thoughts from French to English got me called in the boss’s office on many occasions. Last month, I translated and shared an email I received from a customer in Montreal with a colleague in Alberta as the requested information touched on a western project. My colleague was slightly insulted by the email, telling me: “He’s not even pretending to care about you or the relationship, he just goes for it!” I laughed out loud. I explained to my colleague that making small talk, pretending to care about someone you really don’t, when all you want is a simple piece of information, is what is considered rude in Quebec. We are polite, we just get to the point. I am glad Quebec’s movie directors did not conform to the standardize movie productions we consume often without thinking. Fast food with little nutritional value, forgotten just as quickly.
Quebec directors have their own style, and some films are more accessible or traditional than others. One thing they have in common is that they don’t really follow all the usual cinematic rules. Quebec writers, directors, don’t apply the “assume the audience is stupid” rule. There is not much explanation about every aspect of a story, as you see in standardized American productions, and many films force you to think and make you want to discuss the thoughts and feelings the movies brought. One of my favourite bloopers that exemplify this well was in “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang” (2005). Running out of a building with Robert Downey Jr, while on his cell phone, Val Kilmer says: “I can’t get to my car, (inaudible), next to the freeway. Can you pick us up?” Still running, breaking character: “I would give more exposition, but we’re running out of space!”.
Cinema is a wonderful medium. Quebec directors really mastered every aspect of storytelling, filling the screen with beautiful imagery and using the soundtrack to immerse you in the world they created or wanted you to remember. They can take you to a place you can’t shake immediately as the credit rolls, and that is magic. As usual, I struggled to decide which was the ten best, so I set a specific criteria. I found it essential to tell you as much as possible about my home province, not just for its cinematic prowess, but also stories that depict cultural aspects or period of history. I picked movies relatively recent, with one exception, to increase the chances that you might seek them out. You won’t regret it!
10. BON COP, BAD COP (2006)
Directed by: Erik Canuel
With Colm Feore, Patrick Huard, Lucie Laurier
This comedy forces two very different police officers to work together, I know… never been done before, right? Yes, there are clichés, and it is the most conventional and commercial movie on this list. I mean, this movie dethroned Porky’s (1981) 24-year reign as the highest-grossing Canadian movie at the Canadian box office back in October 2006.
When a body is found at the border between Quebec and Ontario, literally, two police detectives, David Bouchard (Patrick Huard) from Montreal and Martin Ward (Colm Feore) from Toronto, are forced to partner in the investigation. And the movie “goes there”; pokes fun at cultural and linguistic differences as few films do, and you should master the basics of “Frenchglish” by the end. Huard and Feore have a great rapport, so much so that they shot a sequel in 2017 (they are now friends and the common “enemy” is the US). They soon find that the victims have ties to hockey, and many of the characters are thinly veiled: Tom Berry’ is a spoof of Don Cherry (played by Rick Mercer), Harry Buttman, of course, Gary Bateman, Grossbut (Aubut is the real-life villain who sold the Nordiques to Colorado) and so on. The sale of the Quebec Nordiques to Colorado (still heartbroken) seems to be the crimes’s motive. This is a fun movie with many Hockey in-jokes and an excellent way to begin your Quebec movie journey.
Watch the trailer:
This scene saved me a lot of time over the years.
9. SERAPHIN HEART OF STONE (2002)
Séraphin, Un Homme et son péché – translates to a man and his sin.
Directed by Charles Binamé
With Pierre Lebeau, Karine Vanasse, Roy Dupuis et Rémy Girard
The action begins in the late 1880’s and takes place in Sainte-Adèle, with the colonization of the Laurentians, with financial and food misery, as a backdrop. The man named Serpahin has existed in Quebec’s folklore for decades, he was created in 1933. Depending on the times, he sometimes showed a softer side when part of a lighter fare of entertainment. Other times, he is a dark, evil man, greedy, power hungry and only concern with his growing wealth. He thinks nothing of defrauding families of their homes or blackmailing anyone into submission. He is pure greed. Anywhere in French speaking Quebec, if you refer to someone as “Seraphin or Seraphine”, all will understand the reference.
The film is first and foremost a great love story. At the age of 20, Donalda (Karine Vanesse) is the most beautiful girl in Sainte-Adèle. This intelligent and dynamic young woman has always been in love with Alexis (Roy Dupuis), the “draveur” (part of a login crew, the log driver on a river), the brawling adventurer to whom she promised her heart. Seraphin (Pierre Lebeau), sees Donalda as something he can have, and he finds a way to derail those plans as Alexis leaves to a remote work site to earn the money necessary to come back and marry his love.
The plot is played out against a backdrop of the multiple challenges of colonization, Seraphin’s innumerable ploys to seize territory and power, the fierce battles of Father Labelle against Seraphin, the American paper mills, the Catholic Church and the vagaries of politics to develop the railroads and populate the northern part of the province. We can also see the beginning of Quebec becoming a matriarchal society, women were often left at home with large families while the men would leave for remote work location all the while having few rights or power. Alexis comes back to find his loved married off to another man. A tragic love story told against the beauty of the Quebec’s back country.
As an aside, a village from the same era was re-created near Quebec City where actors populate the town. Friends insisted on taking me during one of my visit. As you walk, you can visit the school, the doctor, even the scary dentist of the time. All stay in character. I went to the bank and walked up to a teller to see what would happen. I asked to open an account. He replied: “Is your husband with you?” I’m not married. “Is your father around?” No. “I am sorry, please come back accompanied and we’ll help you then” and he rudely gestured me off.
Watch the trailer:
8. STARBUCK (2011)
Directed by Ken Scott
With Patrick Huard, Antoine Bertrand, and Julie Le Breton
Starbuck was a huge hit in Quebec. Patrick Huard is ideally cast as David, a working-class nobody, an unreliable boyfriend who is always broke and looking for the next way to make a quick buck. As a young man, he visited a fertility clinic and sold his sperm ($35 a visit) over 600 times. As a middle-aged man who learns that his girlfriend (Julie Le Breton) is pregnant, he also learns that he is the father of 533 children and that 142 have filed a class-action suit to find out who their biological father is. The lawsuit identifies the father only as Starbuck. Curious about what he has unleashed, David starts to surreptitiously drop in on some of the children he has helped bring into the world to see how they are doing and help some of them a bit. Director Scott has a gift for finding easily communicable comedy premises. He wrote the original version of La grande séduction, which became a hit in its original Quebecois version and its English-language remake known as The Grand Seduction. He directed the remake of this film and retitled it Delivery Man in Hollywood staring Vince Vaughan. Starbuck won the Best Original Screenplay award at the 2012 Genie awards as well as the Golden Reel award for the highest-grossing Canadian film of the year. At TIFF, it came in third place for the coveted Peoples’ Choice award. Huard is an accomplished stand up comedian in Quebec and generate some solid laughs.
Watch the trailer:
7. THE RED VIOLIN (1998)
Directed by: Francois Girard. Written by Francois Girard and Don McKellar.
With Samuel L. Jackson, Carlo Cecchi, Sylvia Chang.
This selection is not as recent as the others but this movie made a huge impression on me when it came out. As I was revisiting it, I still find it compelling. Directed by Francois Girard and written by Don Mckellar, the story begins in Montreal as Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) arrives as an appraiser for the Chinese government’s violins sold at auction. Soon, a mysterious and beautiful red violin is revealed. Morritz believes the Red Violin to be the legendary last violin of Nicolò Bussotti.
We jump back to the beginning of its life in Cremona in 1681, where a violin maker whose wife, Anna, is pregnant. Their servant Cesca is also a fortune teller. Anna wants to know her baby’s future. Unable to determine the fate of someone not born, she offers to read Anna’s future using tarot cards. The first, The Moon, signifies that Anna will live a long life. Nicolò is almost ready to varnish his new masterpiece when he learned his wife and baby have died in childbirth. Distraught, Nicolò returns to his shop and varnishes the violin with a red colour. The violin then begins its travel.
I will not divulge the other tarot cards nor their meaning. This movie treats you to travels through 400 years, following the various owners of the red violin. From Vienna in 1793, Oxford in the late 1890s, Shanghai in the 1960s, and finally Montreal in 1997.
Each short story showing the instrument’s life is a gift, a time capsule of each era. I can’t think of a more evocative instrument than the violin. A talented musician can direct your feelings magically. The original score rightfully won Composer John Corigliano, the Oscar for Music, which Joshua Bell performed on a Stradivarius.
Watch the trailer:
6. POLYTECHNIQUE (DENIS VILLENEUVE, 2009)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Maxim Gaudette, Sébastien Huberdeau, Karine Vanasse
This film is inspired by the survivors’ testimonies of the tragedy that took place on December 6, 1989, when Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the prestigious École Polytechnique engineering school in Montréal with a Ruger mini-14 rifle and a knife. All names have been changed but, from all accounts, the events are accurate in their chronology and depictions. Polytechnique focuses on the women’s experience, sometimes from their perspective, sometimes from a male student, Jean-Francois (Sebastien Huberdeau). Jean-Francois’ character is based on the real-life student Sarto Blais who witnessed the massacre firsthand and later killed himself, followed by his parents a year later. The ripple effects of these tragedies can never be underestimated.
Shot in black in white, it feels cold and sometimes claustrophobic. Lépine, played by Maxim Gaudette is shown preparing himself on the morning of the massacre to the voice over of his actual suicide letter which was found in his pocket after the massacre. […] “Even if the epithet “Crazy Shooter” will be attributed to me in the media, I consider myself as a rational scholar that only the coming of the Grim Reaper brought me to make extreme gestures. For why persevere to exist if it is only to please the government. Being rather passéist (with the exception of science) by nature, feminists have always had the power to make me angry. They want to keep the advantages of women (e.g., cheaper insurance, extended maternity leave preceded by preventive withdrawal, etc.) while taking over those of men.”
As you see the women studying, getting dressed for a job interview, and going to class, you feel a great sadness as it is so easy to relate. This could be any of us, preparing for the day, not realizing that someone has decided to place their pain ahead of your life. For all the feminism that motivated the shootings, the movie depicts open sexism during an internship interview: “A girl in mechanics? Usually, girls prefer civil engineering. It’s easier. […] For the family. We’re looking for candidates who won’t give up on us along the way…” Valerie, played by Karine Vanasse, who went onto play in many of Quebec’s major productions, is a hard-working student at the top of her class. The perception is that her studies are just something to do while waiting to get married.
Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the prestigious École Polytechnique engineering school in Montréal with a Ruger mini-14 rifle and a knife. The class held approximately 60 people. After approaching the student who was making a presentation, he asked everyone to stop what they were doing. He ordered the men and women to split into two separate groups on either side of the room. Believing it to be a joke, no one moves until Lépine fires a shot at the ceiling.
He then separated the nine women from the fifty or so men present and ordered the men, including the professor, to leave. They meekly complied. The women are almost immediately massacred. The movie is haunting. You really live through the event nearly in real-time. It is beautifully executed and shows the courage the women displayed in an unimaginable situation.
Watch the trailer:
5. MEMOIRES AFFECTIVES (2004)
Directed by Francis Leclerc
With Roy Dupuis, Guy Thauvette, Rosa Zacharie
The movie opens as a strange man visits Alexandre Tourneur (Roy Dupuis), a veterinarian who has been in a lengthy coma after being injured as he was euthanizing a deer by the side of the road. The stranger seems to care for him, but he unplugs Alexandre’s life support and runs out of the hospital. A mercy killing? Maybe that was the intent, but Alexandre miraculously wakes up. At first unable to speak, he eventually is able to express himself but doesn’t know who he is. He doesn’t remember his estranged wife, daughter, or his favourite music. He does have visions, or are they memories? Everyone who visits is behaving strangely, and often they change in the middle of a conversation or right after visiting him. His soon to be ex-wife goes from announcing that she and her new boyfriend are ready to get married to forgetting they were ever together. This is not a typical amnesia story. Shot in the dead of winter (sometimes at -40C in Quebec City and Malbaie region) in faded colour as reality takes shape, you become enthralled and want to stay with him until you figure out what happened. His brother (whom he doesn’t remember and his daughter didn’t know he had) seems relieved that he doesn’t remember anything, and soon we realize that there is something in Alexandre’s past that may be better forgotten. He also has inexplicable memories that can’t be his, sometimes in a native language and from a different time. It also becomes apparent that he is stealing memories from loved ones but still cannot get his own back. I had to watch some scenes a second time to fully understand the extent of what was happening. The performances are solid and demanding due to the shift in personalities, some experiencing a radical change while sharing their memories with Alexandre. Roy Dupuis is one of my favourite Quebec actors. Two other movies he starred in could have made this list, but I wanted to diversify the cast. I would recommend Shake Hands with the Devil (2007), which is the Story of General Romeo Dallaire, who lead United Nation troops during the Rwandan Genocide and The Rocket (2005), about Quebec’s famous hockey player, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard, focusing on the struggles of a French Canadian in the National Hockey League dominated by Anglophones in the ’50s.
Watch the trailer:
4. LES INVASIONS BARBARES (2003)
Directed by: Denys Arcand
With Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau and Marie-Josée Croze.
17 years after “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986), intellectuals Louise (Dorothée Berryman), Pierre (Pierre Curzi), Dominique (Dominique Michel), Claude (Yves Jacques), reunite at Rémy’s (Rémy Girard) bedside after his terminal cancer diagnosis. Times have changed for the group of friends except for their penchant for lively conversations. Many friends and ex-lovers stop to offer support or settle scores… and reflect on their own existence, as do we. Just like its predecessor, this film touches on important themes: individualism, capitalism, priorities gap between generations, and offers a critic of Quebec’s health care system. His now ex-wife Louise calls their son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a broker in London, to come see his father. Sébastien hesitates as he and his father have been estranged for some time, but he eventually agrees to come with his French fiancée to give his mother a hand.
As soon as he arrives, Sébastien moves heaven and earth to obtain a precise diagnosis of his father’s health and soften the trials that await him. He uses his imagination, plays on his relationships, and resort to bribes, among other illegal tactics, to provide his father with better conditions and a little happiness. Sébastien makes a deal with a drug addict, Nathalie (a breakthrough performance for Marie-Josée Croze), to supply him with heroin to make his father more comfortable and eventually die on his own terms. Will father and son reconcile? This story is driven by terrific performances and explores the feelings that come when you have not accomplished all that one wishes and the injustice of having to leave everything when you are not necessarily ready.
It was the first Canadian film to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film at the 76th Academy Awards in 2004. It won awards at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival, six Genie Awards, including Best Motion Picture, and three César Awards, including Best Film.
Watch the trailer:
3. C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)
Directed By Jean-Marc Valée
With Michel Côté, Marc-André Grondin, Danielle Proulx
Our protagonist, Zac, is born on Christmas Day 1960. The fourth of five very different sons of Gervais and Laurianne Beaulieu. The eldest is a bookworm followed by the drug addict and bully Ray, followed by dumb jock Antoine, and the youngest Yvan. To his devout Catholic mother, Zac is her miracle son, both for being born the same day as Jesus Christ, and because a Tupperware-selling clairvoyant once told her that he is “ gifted” and could stop people from bleeding or cure migraines. (I had a neighbour who claimed the same on my street growing up – this is real folks). Laurianne has always coddled Zac, the two who have a special if unspoken bond. But Zac is growing up and the special relationship with his dad is changing, especially has he begins to suspect his son might be gay. I’m usually not a big fan of coming of age stories because they all feel “fixed” somehow to have a happy ending. This is a realistic story that touched me deeply.
I share a similar experience with Zac as my birthday guarantees that most people are completely taken by something else and I was often forgotten even by my own parents who slightly tipsy after celebrating New Year would eventually say: oh s***, happy birthday! But you got a gift last week, so…. Growing up was hard enough in an homogenous society, being any kind of different is hard, but I can’t imagine discovering being gay in an ultra catholic family. Montreal and Quebec City in the 60’s were nearly 100% white and Roman Catholic. I was lucky, had my first crush on a boy in second grade and never once had to think about that until much later, when I met my first gay school mates. If you think it is not that traumatic – think again. 20 years after I graduated high school, one of those schoolmates reached out to me through Facebook and I was heartbroken to read: I am openly gay now. I just wanted to thank you because you are the only person I remember from 7th to 12th grade who never called me names. I hope things are easier now for kids.
Jean-March Vallée flawlessly re-creates a 1960’s 70’s Quebec. I had many emotions watching this movie because we always lived in older places so I can vouch that everything down to the ugly wallpaper, the tacky handrails and the fact that everybody did smoke all the time is true. Don’t get me started on the plates of crustless eggs salad sandwich. And the music! My parents listened to the same music the father loves in the movie and I had not heard any of it since. There is nothing like music to time travel. Even if you don’t agree with a character’s position in the movie, you always see that they act out of love or what they think is best for others. Until they accept that maybe, they need to let the others be and just love them.
Watch the trailer:
2. CAFÉ DE FLORE (2011)
Written, Directed and Edited by Jean-Marc Vallée
With Vanessa Paradis, Kevin Parent, Hélène Florent, Evelyne Brochu.
Two parallel love stories separated by four decades have a common mystical link in this drama from writer and director Jean-Marc Vallee. In 2011, Antoine (Kevin Parent), is a successful club DJ living in Montreal with an international following. He has a beautiful girlfriend, Rose. He is co-parenting two daughters with his ex-wife Carole (Helene Florent) as the girls long for their past lives as a family unit. Both former spouses still share an unbreakable bond. Carole hopes he’ll someday return to her. However, despite his remaining feelings for her, there’s little evidence to suggest he will as he is infatuated and deliriously happy with his new love. Then, in Paris 1969, Jacqueline (a ferocious performance by Vanessa Paradis) is a single mother who is raising a seven-year-old son Laurent. Laurent was born with Down’s Syndrome and is not expected to live past 25; Jacqueline is a mother on a mission to give him the tools to beat the odds. He becomes her entire life and “raison d’etre.”
There is so much to feel and say about this movie as it explores many life’s concept about love and letting go and there are plot twists I can’t possibly introduce here without ruining the experience. There are some very creative sequences which are totally unexpected but somehow fit perfectly within the world of movie. Suffice it to say that I started the movie over a second time after the credit rolled. Some performances were a revelation to me. Having left Quebec in the late ’90s, I am sometimes stuck in a time capsule when it comes to popular culture and Quebec performers. I remembered Kevin Parent has a humble, not athletic, heavy drinking, immensely talented bilingual singer-songwriter, in baggy clothes with a long ponytail. I didn’t recognize him right away, and as I saw Antoine getting out of the pool, lean, healthy, and not speaking in his signature heavy French Gaspesian accent, I was surprised. This was his first experience as an actor and he is pretty much flawless. There is an incredible amount of talent in the film, and Vallée captures natural and touching performances from all children in the movie, which is no small feat. It is a little slow to get up to speed but well worth the patience.
Watch the trailer:
1. INCENDIES (2011)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
With Lubna Azabal, Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin, Maxim Gaudette
When twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) meet the notary for the reading of their mother’s will (Nawal), they hear of her sad and unorthodox burial request due to an unfulfilled promise. They also learn that their mother left them each 1 letter. Jeanne is to find the father they never knew and give him her letter. Simon must find the brother they didn’t know they had and give him his letter. Once the envelopes make it to their destination, a letter will be given to them, and her promise will be fulfilled. Simon is not receptive to this mystery and resents his mother’s ways and remains in Montreal. Jeanne wants to honour her mother’s wishes and sets out to the Middle East. Her mother’s story is heart-wrenching. It shows why judging others based on religion is so misguided and the actions justified by beliefs in a God so horrific. We go back and forth to a country much like Lebanon, but the exact location is never identified, likely because the events depicted are so disturbing. Lubna Azabal, who portrays Nawal from a young woman who fell in love with a man from the wrong religion to her middle age broken self, is nothing short of greatness. This is a story of survival, human strength and also a reminder to not judge others so quickly. We have no idea of the battle strangers are waging and the sacrifices they’ve made. This is a truly inspiring story. I realize how many movies directed by Denis Villeneuve are on my list, but once again, he creates a world and characters you have to see to the end.
Watch the trailer:
Marie’s appreciation for movies & TV began early in life as it offered escapes, laughter, and often an education. It sparked a love of photography, travel, and a general curiosity for the world and everything in it. Originally from Quebec City, she graduated Summa Cum Laude from Trebas Institute in 1998 where John H. Foote was her Film History professor. The winds pushed her into a different professional field and on a few adventures around the world. The passion for film and storytelling in all forms continues. Marie lives in the Canadian Rockies.