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Set in cold rural Quebec at Christmas time, we follow the coming of age of a young boy and the life of his family which owns the town's general store and undertaking business. Written by
Steve Richer <email@example.com>
This movie is as much about a time and a place as it is about its characters. The time is the 1940s and the place is a small mining community in Quebec, Canada, at Christmas time. The movie has such an air of authenticity that I felt that I had gotten a glimpse into what life was like in that community at that time.
The story centers on the experiences of fifteen year old Benoit, an orphan living with his uncle and aunt who run a general store, as well as a funeral parlor. Also living there is Carmen, a young woman of Benoit's age. Most transitions from adolescence to adulthood take years, but Benoit goes a long way to making that transition in a matter of a couple of days. The events that transpire in those days change Benoit from a rather carefree innocence to a sober appreciation of the complexities of life and death. We are witness to the joys, frustrations and sorrows of the people we meet.
Benoit's youthful experiences are universal in the large (sexual awakening, death, duplicitous behavior, dashed expectations), but they are unique to him and that uniqueness is what makes coming of age stories ceaselessly interesting. There is a scene where Benoit is chasing Carmen around among the caskets (such life amid the symbols of death) and he finally catches her as she falls to the ground. He puts a hand on her breast, exciting for him even though she is fully clothed. What happens then is one of those moments that make these experiences unique--neither Benoit nor Carmen knows quite what to do at this juncture and they wind up just staring at each other. If you cannot appreciate such a tender scene, then you will likely not appreciate this movie.
Several themes lurk in the background. One is the friction that exists between the French and English speaking peoples of the province. After finishing a beer in a bar, one of the French Canadians says, "That's one that the English will not get." The bitterness between the English speaking Quebecers and the francophone Canadians is brought home in the scene that has the English speaking mine owner tossing cheap Christmas gifts into the snow from his horse-drawn carriage. The harsh life of the mine workers is portrayed with just enough emphasis to make the point. The ugly and oppressive presence of the asbestos mine casts a somber shadow over the entire proceeding, particularly given the health consequences of the mineral.
Director Jutra chose Jacques Gagnon from the townspeople to play the role of Benoit, instead of casting a professional young actor for the role. I think this turned out to be a fortuitous choice, since Gagnon gives a surprisingly natural performance, aided by some skill-full camera work. Many of the local townspeople appear in the movie, adding to the feeling of authenticity; the use of natural lighting adds to this as well.
Several people have accused this movie of having no plot. I am always puzzled what such people mean by that. This movie presents a sequence of interrelated events leading to a dramatic final scene. To me that is a plot. I wish some of these plot deniers would spell out what they mean by their comment. Maybe I could see the charge sticking when applied to a movie like Warhol's "Empire" (a continuous shot of New York's Empire State Building for eight hours and five minutes), but not to this movie.
I found this engaging and altogether worthwhile.
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