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Lights, camera, Quebec!

Graham Fraser

Roger Frappier: Oser le cinéma québécois

Denis Monière

Mains libres

270 pages, softcover

Le FLQ dans la cinématographie québécoise: Le Front de libération du Québec en 250 œuvres

Sylvain Garel

Somme Toute

604 pages, softcover

Roger Frappier has been an extraordinary and relatively little-known success, working behind the scenes to produce nearly eighty movies since 1971. One of those films, The Power of the Dog (2021), earned its director, Jane Campion, an Academy Award and won the Golden Globe for Drama. The best known of his other films include Le confort et l’indifférence (1982) and Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986), both directed by Denys Arcand; and La grande séduction (2003) and its English-language remake The Grand Seduction (2013).

Born in Sorel, Quebec, in 1945, Frappier is the son of a welder and, more important, the nephew of a cashier at the local cinema. Aunt Gertrude let him slip into the movies during an era when children under sixteen were barred from cinemas in Quebec, following the 1927 Laurier Palace fire, which killed seventy-eight. As a teenager, Frappier insisted on taking a summer job on a cruise ship. He missed his exams and had to repeat a year of school — and in that year a teacher encouraged his love of film. In 1966, he moved to Montreal to attend Collège Sainte-Marie, becoming involved briefly in radical indépendantiste politics. “His interest in politics declined from one month to the next and was replaced by his passion for cinema,” the political scientist Denis Monière writes in Roger Frappier: Oser le cinéma québécois. “Voracious in his hunger for cinema, he saw an average of fifteen films a week.”

At the same time, he became a film critic for the weekly Sept jours and wrote an academic paper on the structure of film production and distribution in Canada, which he summarized in an article for Le Devoir. He quoted studies from 1931 and 1963 on the hegemony of American productions in Canada, noting bitterly that despite thirty years of governments’ good intentions, nothing had changed. Famous Players and United Amusement still controlled the market, and Frappier called on the government to act.

The producer Roger Frappier attends the 2021 premiere of “The Power of the Dog”, in Toronto.

Dominik Magdziak; Getty

Especially in his reviews, Frappier promoted homegrown movies, like Jean Pierre Lefebvre’s Il ne faut pas mourir pour ça (1967) and Jacques Godbout’s Kid Sentiment (1968). “Canada’s cinema will not be viable, drinkable and exportable until it is Canadian,” he wrote. After dropping out of classical college, he got a job as a projectionist and then, in 1968, travelled to England to study at the London School of Film Technique. It was a bittersweet experience. “They taught me how to administer a budget of $2 million when I didn’t have enough money to eat,” he would later tell La Presse. When he returned home in 1969, he found Quebec in an uproar: student rebellions, the rise of the independence movement, and raw radicalization of unions all converged. For the next few years, he participated in — and made movies about — the radical movements shaking the province. “His ambition was to contribute to the politicization of the working class,” Monière writes. “He thought, like others, that film should become a tool of raising consciousness.”

For Frappier, cinema was political: controversial films like Arcand’s On est au coton (1970) were suppressed by the National Film Board, while those on contemporary Quebec were assigned to English Canadian filmmakers. Frappier was enraged by the NFB series Adieu Alouette, complaining that René Lévesque’s call for independence was cut out of one instalment. As he told one interviewer, the series was “done by the English on French Québec to show the rest of Canada, ‘Look how the guinea pigs have grown up and can walk by themselves!’ ”

Even as he campaigned for more funding for Quebec cinema, Frappier declared that it would never have an impact on the international scene without independence. After his scathing attacks on the NFB, he went to work there — and was disappointed by what he saw as the timidity of the Lévesque government, fearing to offend in the period leading up the 1980 referendum. The federalist side won that vote — 60 percent to 40 percent; it was a turning point for Frappier and a number of other intellectuals like Arcand, who said he thought the issue would not reappear in his lifetime. “So, I lost interest in the question; from now on, I have a Canadian passport.” Similarly, Frappier said that there was a vacant space where a filmmaker could say, “Okay, now, with what I am, with my impressions, with my emotions, with my intelligence, I am going to be as good as anyone else in the world, but I will get there alone.”

Frappier left the film board but continued to produce Quebec films (Arcand has said that Le déclin de l’empire américain was originally Frappier’s idea) and continued to fight for funding, arguing that the industry could survive only with significant government support. Indeed, Monière lists dozens of Frappier’s films, giving a description along with its cost of production, its audience, and the revenues it generated. The losses are often significant.

Louis Saia’s Les Boys, a broad farce about beer league hockey, was a huge hit in 1997, and between 2006 and 2010 there were thirty-four to thirty-six Quebec films produced every year. But Frappier would change his mind about the virtue of international co-productions. Initially fearing that domestic partners would lose out, he came to the conclusion that Quebec cinema could develop only through co-productions. He denounced what he called the “terrorism of the small context”— the obsessively local — and pointed to international successes like Babel (2006) and Slumdog Millionaire (2008), both of which were produced with elaborate multinational funding models and participation.

Monière describes this trajectory with regret. He sees Frappier’s career as mirroring the hopes and failures of an entire creative cohort: having failed to achieve independence for Quebec, they sought success elsewhere. “Instead of continuing to invest in the collective destiny, the creators would from then on turn toward more individual dramas and abandon the discourse of commitment,” Monière writes in his conclusion. “[Frappier] thinks that from now on, with or without independence, everyone can achieve their aspirations independently of the political structure. It is necessary to take the best part of political institutions and dissociate cultural production from the political destiny of the nation.” Such thinking is anathema to Monière, who remains deeply committed to independence. “Like Céline Dion, Guy Laliberté, or Robert Lepage,” Monière writes, comparing Frappier to the pop star, the founder of Cirque du Soleil, and the director, “he has shone through the excellence of his work. All of these successes have certainly stimulated the pride of Quebecers, but they have not contributed to changing the relationship of subordination and dependence of the Quebec nation in relation to the Canadian state.” Monière has kept the faith of his youth, and he feels betrayed that Frappier has not.

What is intriguing about the book is that there is no indication that Frappier — who was the author’s friend during their classical college days — was ever interviewed for it, though Monière does thank him for reading the manuscript on a flight from Los Angeles to Cannes. “He confirmed my interpretation of his cinematographic evolution,” Monière concludes.

Paradoxically, a much closer reading of some of Frappier’s early films comes from Sylvain Garel’s monumental Le FLQ dans la cinématographie québécoise. Who knew that there are at least 250 Quebec films that feature some kind of reference to the FLQ? Garel, a French historian and critic, makes it clear that he has seen all of them.

Quebec filmmakers have shown little or no interest in the French regime, the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, the Patriotes of 1837, the revolt of the Métis, or the resistance to the two world wars. So, Garel wonders, where does this fascination of directors for the FLQ come from? One answer is that Quebec cinema and the terrorist organization were born at the same time, in the early years of the Quiet Revolution. Some filmmakers, like Jacques Godbout and Claude Jutra, were only a few years older than the activists, while others, like Denys Arcand and Jean Pierre Lefebvre, were the same age. “The second reason for the interest of filmmakers in the clandestine organization is doubtless more important,” he writes. “Many of these young artists shared the same convictions as those who planted bombs.” He goes on to quote Godbout, Arcand, and Pierre Falardeau on their sympathies for the FLQ’s goals.

Garel is also clearly sympathetic to the independence movement, and, like Monière, he is disappointed by those, like Denis Villeneuve, who have embraced Hollywood. He is sharp-eyed about the studious avoidance of the October Crisis in many other contexts, writing that “the events of October 1970, and more largely the actions of the FLQ, remain a somewhat taboo subject in this divided country. For proof, the bilingual booklet Découvrir le Canada [Discover Canada], given to all migrants wishing to acquire citizenship, does not mention this historic moment.”

Garel is nothing if not diligent. He carefully traces the self-censorship that occurred during the October Crisis, names all the victims of the FLQ, identifies over thirty films that quote the televised reading of the FLQ manifesto, and remarks on the irony that Pierre Vallières, the author of the 1968 book Nègres blancs d’Amérique, and his admirers had no knowledge of or contact with Montreal’s Black community. Garel also winkles out details that some might prefer to forget. For example, he presents information about Frappier’s links to the FLQ during the October Crisis. (When Garel asked about a message that was taped for the Libération cell, Frappier replied laconically, “You are well informed.”) He recounts an incident when Arcand was recorded skiing in the Rockies — a clip that was used, to the director’s embarrassment, in a film celebrating the 125th anniversary of Confederation. And he quotes the bitter scorn that the filmmaker Jean-Daniel Lafond’s indépendantiste friends poured on him when his wife, Michaëlle Jean, became governor general and he moved to Rideau Hall.

Félix Rose, the son of Paul and the nephew of Jacques, two of the FLQ members who participated in the killing of the kidnapped Quebec cabinet minister Pierre Laporte, contributes a brief concluding essay to the book. “As an adolescent, I was incapable of dealing frankly with the October Crisis with my father, and I fell back on books of history, newspaper articles and, above all, cinema,” he writes. It was through film that Rose developed an interest in his people and the richness of its Quebec history: “Cinema allows one to dig into certain subjects, sometimes taboo and sensitive, and offers a better understanding of the complex world around us.”

Rose regrets that he did not have this book while working on his own movie about his father and uncle. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a more complete compendium of films about one of the most remarkable periods in our history.

Graham Fraser is the author of Sorry, I Don’t Speak French and other books.