The French Connection

Originally published in The Ottawa XPress (VOIR MEDIA), August 4, 2005

There’s much to love about the French – their food, their sexual energy and their movies. Thanks to the French, we’ve learned a thing or two about feeding the stomach, heart and soul. And how to do it with panache.

The baguette is always fresh, French lovers constantly satisfying, and French films consistently inspiring. Even the label on a jar of Les Mets de Provence cucumber soup I bought at Made in France (281B Dalhousie Street) is sensational. It reads: à dêguster froide avec du pain pita pour une mise en bouche exquise. Ah, the French. Making the plainest things poetic-and exquisite.

And have you been to Made in France yet? Shop owners Rebecca Mullin and her partner, Manuel Molina, told Shotgun, “Each time we were coming home from France, we were bringing home suitcases filled with many different things.” They’re excited to be sharing France’s sauces, soups, caramels and more, with a growing clientele in Ottawa.

Et bon, to experience even more French culture, you just have to travel minutes from the shop over the Quebec border where you can venture into la belle province herself.

Have you been to Pied du Cochon in Hull? Or Chelsea’s Pub and l’Orée du Bois just 20 minutes from downtown? Or Wakefield pour un souper formidable à Chez Eric? Take the #43 bus to the heart of Aylmer and prenner une petite pause at the quaint marina en route to Quyon or Luskville car racing. Enjoy une verre de vin pendant le 5 à 7 aux Quatre Jeudis. And here I come St-Hubert resto-who can stay away from your dipping sauce?

And in addition to the great food and adventures, there’s the impressive selection of French films at the Bytowne Cinema and Elgin Street Video Station. Unlike Hollywood flicks, Quebec films tend to focus on dialogue and storylines and real characters you can truly appreciate.

A July 9 article in the Globe and Mail by Konrad Yakabuski explains how homegrown Quebec films like C.R.A.Z.Y. (which has already taken in $3.3 million, putting it in second place overall in Quebec this season behind Star Wars) and Idole Instantanée (Instant Idol) are drawing large audiences to theatres across the province and are expected to do well beyond the border. (Check out XPress’s French sister, Voir, for show times.)

French movies are also an excellent way to get a peek into a culture so near to us and yet so different. For instance, Yakabuski’s same article also lists the movie Aurore as the cinematic event of the summer. The film is based on a true story of child abuse that has been entrenched in the collective Quebec psyche for 85 years, but unfamiliar to anglophones. It’s a phenomenon where “every Quebecker grew up being told, ‘Fais pas ton Aurore,’ or ‘Don’t play the martyr.’ It’s still used by parents to remind overindulged children that they don’t have it so bad … like Aurore did,” wrote Yakabuski.

Another phenomenon experienced very differently by most Quebeckers is le premier juillet. July 1 is moving day in Quebec, so while Ontarians throw street parties to celebrate Canada Day, Quebeckers have street fights for un spot to park le moving van. If they have a van.

It’s an experience you now have a chance to share through Premier Juillet. Released this time a year ago by director Philippe Gagnon through Inis-Relève films in Quebec, it has become one of my favourite summertime movies.

It’s absolutely funny, showing the memorable highs and depressing lows of moving with your parents, with your friends, or lover (and of fighting to save your old sofa from your girlfriend who insists there’s no room for it in the new apartment).

But Premier Juillet is as much about the interior journey from adolescence to coupledom as it is about moving: “These are stages that are really important in your life because you establish your way of living,” Gagnon told Shotgun in a telephone interview from Montreal.

Why do these types of ‘meaningful’ Quebecois movies do so well? (I can’t help but think about 2 Secondes and Un Crabe Dans La Tête.)

C’est simple. “People want to be touched by films,” says Gagnon. Hollywood characters are plastic. “We don’t tend to believe those people when we see them in film.”

Instead, Quebec filmmakers aim to create films where people can identify with the characters. “You want to relate to, maybe not your neighbour, but maybe someone [who is doing something] you want, and can achieve to be happy in life,” he says. (Let’s hope that neighbour isn’t the one from Secret de Banlieue!)

But also, film budgets dictate to “go for the human,” as Gagnon puts it “there is less money to make movies with the special effects you see in shit Hollywood features. Even with lots of cash, I’d like to think Quebec cinema wouldn’t resort to gaudy superficiality unless it really had to.

Gagnon’s goal: “We wanted to show a positive attitude of Quebec society; the people around us are happy, making a nice living, questioning themselves.” And it’s in the honesty of real life that we come to see many of these French stories as sympathique.

Leave it to the French to give even the ordinary that little je ne sais quoi.

– Sylvie Hill