Film Friday: Sex and violence, Quebec style

Two local films open this weekend: Roche Papier Ciseaux (Rock Paper Scissors), a drama from talented first-timer Yan Lanouette Turgeon, and Les criminelles, a well-intentioned but odd documentary on sex workers from veteran Jean-Claude Lord.

Roger Léger and Samian in Roche Papier Ciseaux

Roche Papier Ciseaux (Rock Paper Scissors)

Yan Lanouette Turgeon’s feature debut weaves together three stories. A young First Nations man (rapper Samian) leaves his northern Quebec home to seek his fortune in Montreal, by way of a driving job for Normand (Roger Léger), who’s transporting some kind of suspicious cargo.

Meanwhile in town, Vincent (Roy Dupuis) is a crooked doctor specializing in cleaning up medical messes for an Asian mafia, while Lorenzo (Remo Girone) is an aging scrap dealer who dreams of bringing his sick wife (Victoria Zinny) back to Italy one last time.

Turgeon shows a good command of suspense and atmosphere, and ably directs his large cast. The film is at its best in its quiet moments; the plot with Samian and Léger is the strongest, with the relationship between the two men building slowly and subtly, helped along by great performances from both.

The story is also strong in its poignant portrayal of the criminal milieu; rather than the wisecracking badasses of the Tarantino era, or even the Shakesperean antiheroes of Scorsese, Coppola and The Sopranos, the small-time crooks here are tough but tormented men who regret their decisions, but find they have little choice but to continue in the life — from my observations, a much more realistic portrayal.

The film’s main flaw is one that many filmmakers suffer today. Call it Robert Altman Syndrome: a belief that the more interweaving storylines, the better. Although Girone is sympathetic in his role, his storyline is the most sentimental and the least necessary. In fact, it could have been excised from the film without any ill effect, leaving room to develop the other characters further.

Otherwise, Turgeon deserves props for crafting a gripping story with compelling characters. It’s also nice to see an aboriginal character free of politicized issues, noble-savage clichés or wooden-flute music cues (although while we’re on that subject, there is a scene where a menacing Asian mobster is introduced with a gong, surely a trope that should be outlawed). Overall, Turgeon’s first-time excesses can be forgiven if he delivers on the promising talent this film shows.


Les criminelles

In this documentary, veteran Quebec filmmaker Jean-Claude Lord takes on the topic of why sex workers are socially marginalized. He makes an impassioned argument that strippers and prostitutes should be respected for their work, and that the latter should be allowed to practice it legally and safely.

So far so good, but there are a few inescapable problems with the film.

First of all, Lord is a bit all over the place. He tries to work in an angle about nudists, which is related in a general “hey, society is uptight about what we do with our bodies, man” way, but is more than slightly off-topic in the context of sex work. And a gimmick with prostitutes hiding their identity by wearing burkas is just random and goofy

Secondly, Lord puts himself onscreen so much that he makes Michael Moore look like J.D. Salinger. Dude. When you cut away to yourself nodding and smiling during an interview, don’t stay on yourself for more than a few seconds. Seriously.

My final point is perhaps a bit more subtle, but noteworthy all the same. It’s good to have arguments for respecting and protecting sex workers, and the film makes a solid argument against the misguided efforts of “abolitionist” feminists who want to stamp out sex work as a tool of the patriarchy. All the same, there has to be some middle ground between that and a rose-coloured view of sex work as strictly a benevolent and utterly harmless community service, which is how it’s portrayed here.

In the end, the doc is more or less an infomercial for Stella, the Montreal outreach program for sex workers. And they certainly deserve the props. I might have given the gig to someone other than an old, pervy white guy with a bad haircut, but it’s definitely well-intentioned and a step in the right direction. ■

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