Before the referendum came the reviews
In early 2021, the video historian Sébastien Hudon sent an old review of an Orson Welles film to the Université Laval professor Jean-Pierre Sirois-Trahan. The byline read “René Lévesque.” Hudon wondered, “Is this the René Lévesque?”
So much of Lévesque’s life has been explored at length, including his years as a wartime correspondent and broadcaster; his popular television program Point de mire in the 1950s; his entry into provincial politics as a Liberal cabinet minister in 1960, becoming a key engine of the Quiet Revolution; his decision to form the Parti Québécois in 1968; his premiership, from 1976 until he stepped down in 1985. But film critic?
In a 1973 interview, Lévesque said that he loved film and had even written about it in the past. His biographer Pierre Godin quoted a letter from the ’40s, in which Lévesque said that his leisure time was taken up wandering from cinema to cinema and from bookstore to bookstore. But, until now, no one had picked up the trail.
It turns out that not long after returning from the Second World War, Lévesque began writing for Le Clairon, a progressive weekly owned by Télesphore-Damien Bouchard, a senator. While based in Saint-Hyacinthe, the paper had editions in both Quebec City and Montreal, where Lévesque, then newly wed, was living. As an employee of Radio-Canada, he earned just $2,700 a year — roughly $45,000 today — and he took up criticism on the side, ultimately writing over eighty reviews.
What is immediately striking about those reviews is the twenty-five-year-old critic’s maturity and self-assurance. In his first column, for instance, he raved about Laurence Olivier in Henry V. “One has to live the gripping night in the camp of the English army and then, in the morning, admire the knowing confusion and fury of the historic battle of Agincourt,” he wrote. “One has to see this team of high-class actors that Olivier has gathered around his central character of Henry V. With what respect, with what intelligence they transposed onto the screen the incomparable magic of the great poet!”
As postwar Europe struggled, its moviegoers looked to Hollywood. “How did this happen?” Lévesque asked. “Essentially, America is rich. American films in all markets are a glimpse of a world that is happy and well-fed. It is an escape to a lost paradise. In Rome, where people are starving, they go to see cowboys stuff themselves with beefsteak. In Berlin, to see Destry Rides Again. You can get tickets only on the black market!” And Lévesque returned several times to Roberto Rossellini’s 1945 masterpiece, Rome, Open City, made for only $30,000. “Voilà. . . . That’s what you can do without being rich!” he wrote. “You can rent studios, equipment, you can use actors in your neighbourhood, you can . . . but above all, you must choose the subject and the scenario with taste and intelligence.”
A foretaste of Lévesque’s cultural nationalism also comes through. Responding to a question about why films from France were not more popular in Montreal or Quebec City, for example, he recounted all the English products of everyday life: “Well, it’s because of my Eagle pencil and my Numechron alarm clock, my Westinghouse light bulb and my Waterman’s ink. . . . Despite the traditions and the speeches, despite the fleur-de-lis and the schoolroom nostalgia for the ancien régime, we are Americans. We think, we feel, we live as Americans.”
That’s not to say Lévesque disdained popular productions. “A film is above all an amusement, a distraction, an ‘escape,’ ” he maintained. “The first role of cinema — of popular cinema, and for the moment there is truly no other — is to make us forget the room and the seat and the worries of the office, the neighbour who smells of garlic and the woman who smells too good — in essence, to let me leave myself behind.” He praised John Ford’s The Fugitive and John Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, as well as Danny Kaye in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo.
Nor did he lose sight of the inherent nature of film, writing that it is essential to understand the difference between screen and stage, between acting for a camera and acting for radio. Thus he was merciless in his critique of the wildly popular Quebec film Un homme et son péché, the 1949 adaptation of a novel and radio series. “The essential, the flaw that contains and explains all the others, is the serene ignorance of the two fundamentals of cinema: the resources of the camera and the art of editing,” he wrote. In response to those who complained, he added, “I persist in believing that a true and good Canadian film will be made only by someone who ‘knows how’ to make a film — as they do on the other side of the forty-ninth parallel, in Paris, London, Rome, or the independents of Hollywood.”
Lévesque’s wartime experience was reflected in his powerful reaction to The Search. Directed by Fred Zimmerman and shot on location among the ruins of Germany, the 1948 film told the story of a young Auschwitz survivor looking for his mother as she looks for him. Astonished that such a movie could emerge from MGM, best known for mass-produced musicals, Lévesque declared it great. “Not a film of a great artist, director or star, not the display of a style, of individual genius,” he wrote. “But a work that must be described as collective, which pulls together, as if despite itself, with simplicity and without affectation and a terrifying impact, with a kind of instinctive power, all the misery of our age.”
There are some surprises in his judgments. He didn’t particularly like Casablanca, and he found Bogart ill at ease in Key Largo. Intriguing revelations also emerge from his reviews. When Olivier’s Hamlet won best picture and Olivier won best actor at the twenty-first Academy Awards, the California “businessmen” (Lévesque used the English word) who had been financing the Oscars were furious. They were supposed to promote Hollywood! And in the political satire State of the Union, starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, market-specific references were inserted into distributed copies. So when Tracy’s character declares himself to be the candidate of ordinary people, he is flooded with tailored congratulatory messages. “Say,” he asks, as he opens a telegram in the version shown in Quebec, “who’s Camillien Houde?” (The controversial mayor of Montreal, of course.)
Two particular themes echo throughout Lévesque’s columns. First, he believed in the importance of mastering the complexity of the filmmaking process. Second, he was frustrated that small countries like Denmark and Sweden could finance quality productions, while Canada could not or would not (with the exception of National Film Board documentaries).
After two years, the reviews ended abruptly in November 1949, when the Montreal and Quebec City editions of Le Clairon were shut down. Soon after that, Lévesque went to Korea for Radio-Canada; he never returned to film reviewing.
While many of the pictures Lévesque reviewed are more or less forgotten (including some that can still be caught on specialty movie channels), others continue to be hailed as classics. Yet whether he had seen a masterpiece or a bomb, Lévesque reacted with vigour, sophistication, and a passion for the cinematic arts. This book offers a fascinating slice of his career before it took a dramatically different direction.