Ricardo Trogi’s new film 1991 strips the romance from nostalgia

We spoke to the Quebec director and his producer and cast about the final installment in his unvarnished look back at his childhood.

Jean-Carl Boucher in 1991

For a surprisingly long time, the “what it was like when I was a kid” film was a staple of any auteur’s body of work. Fellini has one, Allen has one, Truffaut, Malle, Bergman, Terence Davies, Malick… These films tend to fall into two categories: they either present the protagonist as a passive observer of greater social situations, or they present a fictionalized and slightly idealized nostalgic version of its author. In both cases, the filmmakers tend to embellish either themselves or the setting in order to prove a point — but not Ricardo Trogi.

Trogi’s autobiographical trilogy, 1981, 1987 and now 1991 — referred to, somewhat cheekily, as the Trogilogie — presents three moments in his life in a way that certainly feels completely unvarnished. Trogi doesn’t look back on his life with nostalgia; he doesn’t make himself cool or, in some cases, particularly adept at anything. Trogi himself narrates the film (in a Wonder Years-like set-up) with a kind of blunt honesty that can sometimes make us forget that this is, by all accounts, an autobiographical story. The movie version of Ricardo Trogi doesn’t win more than the real Ricardo Trogi; if anything, he wins less. It’s a level of introspection and self-awareness that I find, honestly, sort of mindblowing.

“It’s all about honesty,” says Trogi. “I think ultimately it pays off even more, even if you have to take a deep breath and jump in the water, so to speak. ‘Fuck it, whatever happens happens!’ It worked with the first one, it worked with the second one, so now I have no more taboos. The best and the worst — it’s all human. And I do have to point out that I didn’t kill anyone or anything like that — it remains pretty legit.”

“It’s not the most obvious thing,” says producer Nicole Robert. “He’s directing himself, his own life and the person he is. He has to recreate the people who were important to him, but on set, we totally forgot about it. We forgot that what he was talking about really happened to him. There’s a lot of generosity in Ricardo, but he’s also a great philosopher. He’s very detached about himself — he has no ego, no false sense of pride. He’s very humble!”

In 1991, Ricardo Trogi is 21 years old. He’s studying screenwriting at UQAM, having finally been able to move out of Quebec City and away from his hysterical mother (Sandrine Bisson) and eccentric dad (Claudio Colangelo). Ricardo only has eyes for Marie-Ève Bernard (Juliette Gosselin), a school friend who he certainly can see himself growing old with, even if that’s probably something she should be made aware of. When Marie-Ève announces that she’s going on an exchange trip to Italy, Ricardo only has one choice: he, too, is going on the trip, hoping to finally conquer her heart, and maybe get in touch with his Italian roots while he’s there.

The second Ricardo arrives in Italy, however, things go to shit. He befriends a sketchy vagabond named Arturo (Alex Nachi) on the train, immediately loses all of his papers, winds up living with a womanizing African exchange student (Mamadou Camara) and hooking up with a slightly worrisome Greek woman (Mara Lazaris) who won’t leave his side — all of which represent significant obstacles in the conquering of Marie-Ève, who seems to be growing closer and closer to her stoner roommate by the day.

Part of the challenge of a film like 1991 is that all characters are purely filtered through Trogi’s perspective — that of an immature and thoroughly naive 21-year-old guy, who don’t tend to be the most self-effacing or analytical creatures out there. The result is that some characters have to play up their idealized nature — like Gosselin, whose Marie-Ève Bernard has to represent a flawless feminine ideal. “The way I saw it is that it’s Jean-Carl and Ricardo’s movie,” she says. “It’s his story told from his perspective through his voice. That’s the goal. Each movie has its respective goals, and this one wasn’t about going into this character’s life and exploring it. Ricardo sort of debriefed me on who she was for him — perfect, but a little too much — and then the challenge became to exist in a different period, in a different country, to do comedy, which I haven’t done much of before… Each project comes with challenges. This had a challenge, but it wasn’t a deep excavation! Maybe I shouldn’t say that because it makes it feel like I worked less, but really, it was just a different kind of work.”

Juliette Gosselin, Ricardo Trogi and Jean-Carl Boucher on the 1991 set

Jean-Carl Boucher has been living with the Ricardo Trogi “character” for over 10 years — in a way, it represents his own version of Boyhood.

“It’s interesting because he’s picked periods of his life that are pretty similar to mine,” says Boucher. “In 1981, I had just moved here from Saskatchewan and started at a new school. I had to adapt, just like he did. In 1987, trying to get into bars and drinking poppers in the backseat of a car – I did that, too. And now, in 1991, he’s going on a trip that I did when I was 19. I went to France, Germany… it was the same sort of trip as in the film. It makes it pretty easy to slip back into the character, even if it’s purely coincidental. I find it very easy to identify to the character.”

“It’s pretty funny because if you look at pictures of Ricardo when he was 11 and look at Jean-Carl when he was 11, they totally look the same,” says Gosselin. “But Jean-Carl now has nothing to do with Ricardo, who’s six foot something! They veered off significantly! Earlier today, we were standing outside and a woman walked by and asked Jean-Carl, ‘Excuse me, are you Ricardo Trogi?’ and he said ‘No!’ and she just said, ‘Oh, but you really look a lot like him!’”

“I have to give some very awkward explanations sometimes,” explains Boucher. “There are people who don’t fully grasp the fact that he’s telling his own story, that he’s narrating and directing but that he doesn’t really look like me… Sometimes I get pretty lost in a convoluted explanation, and I have to just give up on it!”

1991 is a period piece, but not a particularly affected one; its costumes, music choices and other aesthetic elements are dated, but they’re far from a Super Sounds of the ’90s nostalgia trip. “I think it was easier this time around,” says Trogi. “I think the hipster style is more in line with what we needed: the glasses, the shirts… they’re everywhere! There are three crowd scenes in 1991 where a bunch of people are sitting in some steps in Italy: a third of those people were “controlled,” people that the production put there. The rest are just people who showed up — they didn’t even know, they were just hanging out. They saw us setting up but we only shot three hours later. We started shooting with them there, and they’re indistinguishable from the people we put there!”

Producer Nicole Robert isn’t so certain. “It can be kind of treacherous, because any signage or postering…” she says. “Of course, in Italy, it’s not so bad. But the cars, the posters, the advertising… but you can find all the clothes you need at Value Village!”

1991 takes place almost entirely in Italy, save for a few scenes at the beginning in Montreal or Quebec City. It’s rare that Quebec productions shoot so much of the final product overseas, which Robert says is definitely an additional problem-solving situation. “Everyone wanted to come to Italy and work on it, of course,” she says. “But then again, everyone wants to work with Ricardo. There were certainly some challenges about moving an entire production to Italy. We pretty much had to bring our entire team from here in order to get some financial advantages. We could’ve brought a smaller team overseas and cast more roles in Italy — the German girls, the Greek girls are all cast from here — which would have saved us money, but would also have affected our tax credit. That kind of thing has huge consequences on a production!”

As calculated as it seems, Trogi says he had no intention of turning his life into a trilogy when he first made 1981. “I just kept thinking that I might have something to say about another step,” says Trogi. “Even now, I might have a couple of ideas for something later on, but I don’t know if I’ll do it. I’m waiting to see what the response is like, if people want to see another one… I don’t want to harass people with this stuff either!”

“I’m open!” says Robert. “But that’s the way Ricardo is. We’ve been working together for 20 years, and that’s just his pace. He has to be ready — but when he’s ready, he’s ready! Will it be a fourth film in this series or something else entirely? Only he knows that.” ■

1991 opens in theatres on Wednesday, July 24. Watch the trailer here: