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Review by Jerry White
Posted 11 June 1999

  Directed by Robert Lepage

Starring Anne-Marie Cadieux,
Alexis Martin, Marie Brassard,
Richard Fréchette, Marie Gignac,
Eric Bernier, and Jean Leloup

Written by Robert Lepage
and Andre Morency

Not too many Americans know about the October Crisis. Hopefully (for more reasons that one), this may soon change. More Americans probably know about Robert Lepage, the world-renowned Quebecois theater director who has also made several films, such as Le Confessionale and Le Polygraphe. Now, we have the meeting of these two important elements of Quebec culture, No, Lepage's newest film which has as its subject that brief period in Quebec where a terrorist campaign was in full swing, martial law was declared and all Hell seemed to be breaking loose. No is one of the most innovative, dynamic films you're likely to see this year; the way that it balances problems of politics, culture, nationalism, terrorism, love and, finally, death, is truly a revelation. Lepage sees no clear boundaries between all of these parts of life, and so this new film could be argued to be something of postmodern stew. And yet, there's none of the smarminess or hip-dom that one associates with film makers who try to capture the contemporary sense of fragmentation that seems to be gripping western culture (film makers like, to take two random examples, Lars Von Trier or the Bros. Coen). Instead, Lepage is sensible and honest enough to allows us to see just how hard this kind of mixing has been on his fully-drawn characters; emotionally detached this film is not. Instead, its combination of the stylized and the straightforward points a way for contemporary, post-classical film that many sophomoric American and European film makers would to well to follow.

The film is set in 1970, and moves between Japan and Montreal. The Tokyo World Fair is underway, and the French portion of the Canadian pavilion is performing a Feydeau farce, starring a young quebecois actress named Sylvie. She is trying to break off an affair with one of her fellow actors, and finds herself stuck for an evening with the boorish ambassador to Canada and his arrogant wife, both of whom are French-Canadian. Back home, her intellectual boyfriend Michael has taken up with the Front pour la Liberation du Quebec (FLQ), and he along with a few associates are building a small bomb in his basement apartment. As Sylvie's life in Japan becomes more complicated and unmanageable, the situation gradually deteriorates in Montreal; martial law has been declared and the police are watching Marc (a brief historical digression: the FLQ kidnapped and murdered the trade minister Pierre Laporte in October 1970; the Trudeau government responded by invoking the War Measures Act, declaring martial law in Quebec and rounding up anyone suspected of terrorist sympathies. This period is known as "The October Crisis").

The Japan sequences are dripping with color and alive with the bustle of the World's Fair; the Montreal sequences are in black and white, and mostly take place in dank, cramped apartments. For Lepage, and for many quebecois in the early 70s, there was a kind of idealism invested in internationalism, especially as Quebec seemed to be slipping into a kind of siege mentality which inevitably included cultural repression and paranoia on all sides. And yet, as Lepage clearly shows, engaging with a utopic concept of "elsewhere" never really panned out like so many hoped it would; the problems that Sylvie thought she left behind seem to be following her. What she learns from her experience in Japan is that what she sought to satisfy her longing can't be found in either a foreign country or her hometown of Montreal. Contrary to a lot of the idealism that produced this naive internationalism, it can't be found in an independent Quebec either, as we see at the end of the film when we watch Sylvie and Michael, now married and approaching middle age, indifferently watch the returns of the 1980 referendum on separation, which failed easily (the 1995 referendum was much closer). This fragmentation that Sylvie suffers from, Lepage seems to be showing us, is in no way something that she will get over by a little time abroad. Like many commentators have argued, it is a fundamental part of the Quebecois experience. The kind of personal crises that these characters have suffered from throughout the film have not been healthy, "character-building" sorts of experiences; they instead ensure a terminal melancholy and struggle.

This bittersweet, perhaps even sour assessment is an important intervention in a historical debate that is still very much in progress in Quebec. Before the 1960s Quebec was known as a very closed, somewhat repressive and very, very Catholic culture. The period of 1960-1969 is known as the "Quiet Revolution," and marks the moment that the province emerged as an artistically and politically vibrant place. It also marked both the solidification of the separatist movement and the transformation of Quebec into a multi-cultural society in many ways lead by the cosmopolitan Montreal. The Quiet Revolution ended in 1970, when tanks rolled through the streets of that city and people like Sylvie were arrested without charge. The legacy of the Quiet Revolution can still be felt, although nobody really understands its effects fully. Given that No takes place just as that Revolution was ending, Lepage's assessment of that period is cynical in the extreme. All that fuss and bother for a whole decade, he seems to be saying, and this is what you wind up with; a boorish and lecherous caste of civil servants, a cultural scene that depends on some totally imagined vision of the French motherland, a few totally incompetent bombers who nearly blow themselves up as they argue about the language of a press release (an especially sharp barb, given the how insanely often questions around language are invoked when discussing Quebec separatism), and, most tragically, a young woman who has almost nothing in the way of personal identity, national self or meaningful relationships. Not much to be proud of, is it?

Despite the gripes against Lepage that he's nothing but a poseur, a member of the yuppified avant-garde (Stuart Klawans' patronizing review in the most recent issue of The Nation is an example of such a critique), I believe that he's among the smartest, most original young film makers at work anywhere. No is his best film so far, a minor masterpiece of cultural criticism, historical argument and gentle but potent drama. That all of it is rendered with a keen visual sensibility that alternates between lyricism (a moment where a blind translator smooches her sweet but dorky English Canadian boyfriend in a photo booth is especially lovely) and brutality (the closing moments of the film, when Sylvie is arrested in Montreal, are straightforwardly shot but still upsetting) makes the work especially satisfying. Even though it has one of the world's most exciting national cinemas, not much film from Quebec gets seen in the United States. No, if you go in armed with some basic historical background, is as good a way to rectify that situation as almost any film I can think of.

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