THE CAT IN THE BAG
B&W, 1964, 74 mins. 15 secs
Directed by Gilles Groulx
Alexis Kanner, Judith Gault, Jackie Burroughs, Derek May, Louis Negin, Leonard Cohen
THE MERRY WORLD OF LEOPOLD Z
B&W, 1965, 68 mins. 35 secs
Directed by Gilles Carle
Guy L'Ecuyer, Paul Hébert, Suzanne Valéry, Monique Joly
B&W, 1966, 70 mins. 45 secs
Directed by Jacques Godbout
Charles Denner, Andrée Lachapelle, Paul Buissonneau
Canadian International Pictures (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD)
Continuing its mission to familiarize the world with Canadian cinema that barely played outside local borders, Canadian International Pictures delivers a triple dose of early 1960s Montreal filmmaking with a Blu-ray triple feature, The Other French New Wave Vol. 1. That title might have you primed to expect lots of arty nods to directors like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, though apart from the stylized monochrome photography and the occasional flashy artistic flourish, you won't find too many similarities here. These are definitely their own beasts, showing the French-Canadian film culture just finding its legs with new ways of presenting its local creative voices outside the realms of documentaries and short films.
First up is the earliest project in the bunch, The Cat in the Bag (Le chat dans le sac), which can be played with or without a preliminary English-language short film, 1961's Very Nice, Very Nice (6m59s), a fragmented collage looking at political and artistic tensions around the time including the modern rat race and nuclear apocalypse. Cat begins over a snowy backdrops with a mission statement about its look at "certain groups of French Canadian youth... during an unusually mild winter" in 1964 Montreal. Claude (Kanner), a loner arty type fascinated with current events, and Barbara (Gault), who comes from a bourgeois Jewish family, take turns speaking to the camera about their views on the world. Meanwhile their relationship finds them drifting apart, with her time as a student at the National Theatre school running out and confronting them with the harsh realities of the world finding jobs. She's also a more optimistic personality versus his compulsion to take part in a political revolution, a schism that we know from the beginning they won't be able to overcome. Essentially a portrait of a couple in flux, this one is especially noteworthy for its effective jazz soundtrack by none other than John Coltrane that seems to be drifting off the streets themselves during Claude's wanderings and musings.
Next is The Merry Life of Leopold Z (La vie heureuse de Léopold Z), which can be played with or without the short Christmas Cracker (Caprice de Noel) (8m59s), a very appropriate choice as it's a whimsical animated salute to the holiday season and the joy of playing with toys in general. In Montreal on Christmas Eve we meet our protagonist, Leopold (L'Ecuyer), a busy snowplow operator whose wife (Joly) sends him out for errands -- and to get her a Christmas surprise present while she takes care of their young son. His snowy day is interspersed with humorous asides about his past including his education and first girlfriend, all while he deals with a loan office, mechanical problems, a detour helping his benevolent boss Théophile (Hébert) move furniture, and a looming deadline to see his son sing at midnight mass. Along the way you get lots of coverage of how Montreal deals with the onslaught of snow, something that proves to be far more fascinating and even amusing than you might expect.
The lightest and most energetic film of the three, this one's a real delight as our picaresque protagonist goes through a hectic Christmas Eve with both nature itself and everyone around him throwing unexpected challenges along the way. The film maintains a strong sense of location throughout, showing day-to-day life both in the streets and in various buildings along the way to the big mass finale. There are some delightful little touches too like stylized messages intercut into the film, giving it a bouncy tone reminiscent at times of Louis Malle's Zazie dans le Métro. L'Ecuyer is a lot of fun as our resourceful Leo (the Z stands for his middle name, in case you're wondering), a likable alternative to the more traditional pensive solitary men we see in the other two films here. This one was presumably intended to aim for wider distribution than its peers as evidenced by the inclusion here of an alternate English-dubbed track (which is extremely well done) in addition to the original French one, with optional English subtitles. The English opening and closing credits are included as well, plus three more short films for this one. The Rink (Patinoire) (1962, 10m2s) is a dialogue-free look at how an ice rink gets used by a neighborhood for hockey, skating, dancing, and plenty more, while The Big Swim (1964, 9m24s) provides an upbeat portrait at the Canadian Swimming Championships in Vancouver, 1962. Finally Percé on the Rocks (1964, 9m38s) is a colorful and often humorously weird look at modern rock formations in the sea that affect everyone from fishermen to photographers, as well as the oddball critters who live around them.
Finally we get to YUL 871, which comes with or without a short film, 1964's 23 Skidoo (8m16s), which seems to show Montreal in the wee empty hours of the morning before delivering a dark mid-film twist. YUL is the closest thing to a French New Wave title simply by virtue of the casting of lead actor Charles Denner, a regular Truffaut mascot (The Bride Wore Black, The Man Who Loved Women) as well as a familiar face in films by Claude Lelouch and Costa-Gavras. The title refers to a flight number of a French engineer who arrives in Montreal only to find that the man he's supposed to meet isn't in his office. After a bus ride through the city he wanders the streets to kill time, crossing paths with a young girl, striking up a potential romance, and diving into Montreal culture ranging from bowling alleys to a "ye ye" performance in Arab drag to a quirky shooting gallery and even a moment of unexpected tragedy. He also decides to track down info on his parents, who were separated from him during World War II; the fact that he's Jewish (including visual commentary from archival newsreel footage) adds an extra layer of meaning to his journey as well. Stylish direction by Jacques Godbout (who went on to helm the Quebecois crime film The Mob) is the real star here, showing off a number of moods throughout the city including a spooky nocturnal passage an hour in that feels like a borderline thriller. The ending is an interesting artistic choice as well, featuring what looks like a tip of the hat to 1962's La Jetée. This one also comes with an alternate English dub track, though it's vastly inferior to the one for Leopold; nice to have though in any case. The very experimental and amusing original trailers for Leopold Z and YUL 871 are also included, and the scans for all three films (taken from 2K restorations from the 35mm interpositives) all look and sound excellent with pristine French DTS-HD MA 2.0 mono tracks (with optional English SDH subtitles in addition to translated English subs). The disc also comes with an insert booklet featuring an informative essay by Eric Fillion about the changing political climate in Montreal behind these films, the purpose of the National Film Board of Canada that was being morphed to accommodate narrative films, and the perceived marginalization of French-speaking product, as well as the contributions of all three directors here.
Reviewed on April 23, 2022.