What could be stranger than a movie narrated by a talking fish? How about a movie that begins with an abortion performed to a cover of "Good Morning, Starshine"? Better yet, how about both in the same movie? For those daring enough to take the plunge, that's precisely what awaits them in the new French Canadian film "Maelstrom," only the latest in a long line of English- and French-language Canadian pictures to push the envelope of conventionality.
"When you put a talking fish in your movie, you expect people to ask you questions about it," jokes the film's writer-director, Denis Villeneuve. "For me, it was the idea of a narrator that is coming from another time and space, that has a primitive link with us. The fish was the most beautiful way of making a link between telling a story and death." Centering on the emotional odyssey of a young Montreal woman as she struggles to rebuild her life in the aftermath of a deadly hit-and-run accident, "Maelstrom" traffics in themes that are simultaneously dark and redemptive: joy wrought through tragedy, bliss as a byproduct of agony.
Scenes like "Maelstrom's" abortion sequence, however, are particularly key to understanding a major difference between Hollywood and Canadian cinema, a distinction that is rarely made in a town that prefers to see Canadian films as merely a subset of American independent cinema. For where Hollywood traditionally sees horror in the collision of sex and death, Canadian filmmakers find something provocative, even meaningful.
Films as far-reaching as Atom Egoyan's "The Sweet Hereafter," David Cronenberg's "Crash," Denys Arcand's "Love and Human Remains," Lynne Stopkewich's necrophilia-themed "Kissed," Mort Ransen's "Margaret's Museum" and Don McKellar's apocalyptic "Last Night" all touch, to varying degrees, on similar themes--sex and death, the life cycle encapsulated in narrative form.
"It's a very dark vision. And that has mystified many of us," says Piers Handling, head of the Toronto International Film Festival. "I think there's a desire to look below the surface at another reality. And what they find is disturbing. It's dark. It's sexual. And you don't typically perceive Canadians as being dark or sexual or troubled."
Toronto Sun film critic Bruce Kirkland notes, "There's an ennui about being in a small country that's a flea on the elephant's skin. It allows you to brood, to be sad in secret, to be obsessed with things like the reality of life, the reality that there is also death attached to it. So morbid things are not treated in a morbid way."
Twenty years ago these films and filmmakers might have been labeled the "Canadian New Wave," if anyone had bothered to recognize it as such. Today, it stands nameless and unheralded, though the defining characteristics of this challenging cinematic movement remain as forceful and unmistakable as ever. Films focus on intensely humanistic tales marked by dark and morose themes and employ unconventional narrative structures, depictions of a world in which life lessons are learned not so much through the Hollywood model of overcoming adversity as by the Canadian example of staring it squarely in the face.
Like many national film movements, Canada's was reactionary in origin, formed in opposition to the constraints of "realist" cinema that included not only studio movies but also home-grown documentaries. The so-called tax shelter era of the '70s, when government incentives helped encourage a stream of cheap Hollywood knockoffs, proved the last straw.
"I think the true artists that you would consider part of a New Wave of Canadian cinema are those like David Cronenberg who were reacting to the tax shelter era, who actually tried to create something that was personal, individual and idiosyncratic, something that ran counter to the expectations of commerciality," Kirkland says.
Handling explains that Quebec cinema was already looking below surface reality in the '60s because of the French New Wave. "But in English Canada, we needed a key figure who was going to smash the idol, to some extent the idol of documentary realist cinema. David was the one who did that. Even Atom Egoyan admits the influence of Cronenberg. And the thing to remember is that Cronenberg didn't leave the country."
The other major hallmark of Canadian cinema has been its near-total rejection of straightforward narrative. It can be seen in the brazen non-linearity of virtually all of Egoyan's work, the twisted surrealism of experimentalists like Guy Maddin and John Paizs or the labyrinths of interwoven story lines in Jeremy Podeswa's "The Five Senses" and Francois Girard's "The Red Violin"--a collective, concerted attempt to both dispose of the old narrative forms and invent new ones.