Pour vivre ici is a movie about grief with zero crying

Bernard Émond and the cast and producer of his new film on a cinematic world free of melodrama.

Sophie Desmarais and Élise Guilbault in Pour vivre ici

“You enter into Bernard Émond’s world, into his writing, into his trip,” says Sophie Desmarais. She stars in Pour vivre ici, Émond’s latest film. “And that’s what my job is — to interpret the material of others. That’s what I do when I’m on stage, what I do on TV. Our job is to defend a particular piece of writing and to appropriate it in a way, but not to impose our own voice on it. That’s why I have so much respect for the words that Bernard chose.”

Émond is an auteur in the most straightforward sense. Most of his films deal directly with the theme of loss, and it’s very unlikely that you’ll see him tackle sci-fi or horror any time soon. All of Émond’s films are minimalist dramas that very deliberately shy away from melodrama. Pour vivre ici is a good example: it’s a movie about grief in which no one is ever shown crying.

“Everyone who loses someone ends up feeling lost for a while,” says producer Bernadette Payeur. “That’s the great force that Bernard has — we can identify, we can project! Even if he made 10 more of these, I’d be on board. It’s what the characters live that interest me.”

Élise Guilbault plays Monique, a retired nurse living in the relatively remote Côte-Nord city of Baie Comeau. When Monique’s husband passes away suddenly, she finds herself rudderless: her children (Danny Gilmore and Marie Bernier) live in Montreal and she has no living relatives. At her husband’s funeral, she rekindles a relationship with her late son’s ex-girlfriend Sylvie (Sophie Desmarais) and the two begin to spend more time together when Monique’s children are too busy to see her when she comes to Montreal. As Monique grapples with the idea of having to live the rest of her life without the markers she’s come to rely on, she begins to look to the past for a guiding touch.

Émond’s distaste for emotional artifice is evident from the get-go. The scene of Monique learning of her husband’s death essentially boils down to one silent shot of her standing in the doorway of her home, rather than the histrionics we’re usually privy to in films about grief. Consequently, Guilbault’s performance remains extremely internal throughout.

“It’s cinema, not television!” says Émond. “The intensity is there, but it’s a choice. I’m not interested in working with the sort of oneupmanship that defines advertising and television. I feel like television and advertising are colonizing cinema, and I refuse to accept that! I don’t want to be manipulated, and I don’t want to manipulate others. How often do we see actors just cruising by on autopilot? Élise doesn’t fall in that trap. She’s an actress of rare power, and when you condense the work that she does, you find something extremely powerful. And besides, we’ve seen so many scenes of people screaming and crying and so on — I don’t feel like shooting them.

“There are some filmmakers who think, ‘This is what the audience wants, I have to give it to them!’ I’m not interested in that. There’s already plenty of feelings and music and tears in this world — no! What I want to give people is a step to the side. The opportunity to be attentive. We live in a world where we can no longer be attentive — we’re solicited, manipulated constantly! My philosophy is to let the audience sit down and let this woman’s pain penetrate their souls. If you need more than that, go elsewhere! It won’t be hard! That’s all there is elsewhere.”

It’s a particular challenge for Guilbault, since her performance features very little reacting. A lot of the film is deceptively simple, filled with scenes of her simply existing — scenes that would seem like they necessitate very little effort when in fact the opposite is true.

“You don’t see her curled up in a ball in bed, crying, considering suicide,” says Guilbault. “But that’s something that comes up often in Bernard’s cinema. His characters are screaming on the inside. There’s a restraint that’s often held up by the role of nature in his films. In fact I often say that the main character is Monique, but underneath it all it really is nature. It’s what sustains her — the piercing cold, the storm — and what expresses her pain. It expresses it much more than she does!

“I’m an extremely expressive actress in general,” she continues. “I’ve done Greek tragedies and I know how to follow that path. I can get to very expressive performances much easier than I can a restrained one — restraint is a lot of work! But the truth is that we did get there a few times, and Bernard simply didn’t put it in the movie. It gets close sometimes — my eyes well up with tears, but the catharsis isn’t there.”

Desmarais brings up much the same points with regards to acting in an Émond film.

“It’s difficult when you consider the more TV-oriented acting style that we get accustomed to,” she says. “On TV, actors are often encouraged to put things into their own words. Dialogue is fast, spontaneous; with Bernard, there’s a real tone, but we’re not acting tone. We’re acting a writing style. (…) It’s a real challenge to embark on this trip and land on this planet, if you will — Bernard Émond’s planet!” ■

Pour vivre ici opens in theatres on Friday, Feb. 23. Watch the trailer here: