This movie digs deep into Montreal’s history

We spoke to two actors from François Girard’s grandiose new film Hochelaga, terre des âmes.

Vincent Perez as Jacques Cartier in Hochelaga, terre des âmes

François Girard’s Hochelaga, terre des âmes is not the kind of movie we see too often in Quebec. Its scope is grandiose; its story takes places over hundreds of years and requires locations that haven’t existed in centuries.

Produced in conjunction with the city of Montreal’s 375th anniversary, Hochelaga tells the story of the creation of Montreal through archeological artifacts dug up by Métis archeologist Baptiste Asigny (Samian). Asigny discovers the artefacts when a sinkhole opens up in the middle of the Percival Molson Stadium football field, killing one of the McGill Redmen. In the sinkhole, Asigny and his collaborator Antoine Morin (Gilles Renaud) find three artifacts from previous generations who lived at the foot of the mountain, bringing them ever closer to discovering the exact spot where Hochelaga once stood.

Étienne Maltais (Emmanuel Schwartz) was a fur trapper stricken with influenza who wound up in a hospital run by Sister Béatrice (Karelle Tremblay). Léopold Lacroix (Sébastien Ricard) is a Patriote who holes up in the home of a wealthy English landowner (Sian Phillips) to escape the English, while Vincent Perez plays Jacques Cartier on his first foray up what would eventually become Mount Royal. Raoul Trujillo also appears throughout as a prophet on the site of a massacre at the bottom of the mountain, finding the majority of his people killed but for one man (also portrayed by Samian).

Samian himself — he’s best known as a rapper — is Métis, which puts a certain perspective on a film that’s certainly largely about colonialism… and one directed by a white man. “I had no concerns about that,” he says. “The character was written as Métis in the first place, so I knew that from the get-go, but François said something early on that I thought was very beautiful. We were doing interviews at the premiere, and they asked him what it felt like to make a movie about First Nations people. You know, François has made movies all over the world, and he literally lives at the foot of Mount Royal. From his living room, you can see the mountain. He thought to make a movie about the city. He said, ‘I’m not making a movie just about First Nations; I’m making a movie about the history of Montreal. The ground collapses, and the whole history is there.’ (…) It’s a beautiful poem that François has created here.”

Baptiste is Samian’s fourth movie role, but his first lead. “I often play characters who are similar to me,” he says, “characters that were written for me, usually. It wasn’t the case here. When I met François, the film was already written. I learned on-set. I didn’t go to school for it, and I didn’t even take classes. But when you show up on-set and you’re acting with Roy Dupuis, or Roger Léger, Gilles Renaud… You have to rely on them fully; when they act, you act. It makes you better, more credible when you act with great actors.”

David La Haye plays Alexis Leblanc, a Frenchman whom Maltais encounters in the hospital. Delirious with pain and fever, he spends his time in the hospital damning his decision to come to this new world. “On the inside, I had to be as prepared as if I had to play Hamlet,” he says. “It was just physical and pain and hallucination, coupled with the fact that the character is afraid of burning in hell for all eternity. I had to show my bedmate, who was more open-minded and progressive, more adapted to the culture and the presence of First Nations people, all these feelings. My character is afraid of the First Nations, he can’t deal with the cold, he’s afraid of going to hell.”

One of the most interesting aspects of the film is the French being spoken in the earlier segments of the film. It’s based on “Old French” — which in facts sounds nothing like the current Québécois or French accent, full of rolled R’s and archaic terms. “We had accents, but we also used terms from Old French that we didn’t even understand,” says La Haye. “François was adamant that we didn’t really need to make it fully clear what we were saying. He wanted to be very precise and coherent with what linguists believe was being spoken at the time — of course, there are no recordings. He could’ve chosen to make a more accessible, universal film. I’m happy that he didn’t!”

The recurring theme of the film is one of place. Each sequence takes place more or less in the same geographical spot, at about the same distance from a river with roughly the same terrain. “Everything happens on one spot,” says Samian. “It tells our story — yours, mine. When you hear Creole, Arabic, Mohawk, Algonquin, French, English.. There are a lot of languages spoken in this movie, because it’s our story. It’s beautiful, what François pulled off. That guy’s a poet!”

Surprisingly enough, life came very close to imitating art during the shoot. “While we were shooting the film, there was some construction on the street not too far from where we were shooting,” he says, “and they had to stop construction because they found some arrowheads or pottery shards, something like that. They stopped everything. We started freaking out — what if they find Hochelaga while we’re shooting this movie about finding Hochelaga? We’d be fucked! I can’t even begin to think what would’ve happened. But the search is ongoing.” ■

Hochelaga, terre des âmes opens in theatres on Friday, Jan. 19. Watch the trailer here: