Women directors thrive at Quebec City’s film festival

Justine Smith’s second and final dispatch from the Festival de cinéma de la Ville de Québec outlines several must-sees directed by women.

Since I submitted my first dispatch from Quebec, I’ve been knee-deep in cinema from around the world. The quality of the films has been exceptional, and on top of that, most of the features I’ve been watching have been directed by women. Just about 40 per cent of all the features programmed at the FCVQ were directed or co-directed by women, a remarkable number considering how major film festivals like Cannes and Venice whine that they don’t want to compromise the quality of their selection just to get equality points. In Quebec City, according to some tweets, going in blind is exactly what they did in programming: “We hide the filmmaker’s name while selecting. So it is the work who speaks.”

Since I had the chance to see many great films over the course of just a couple of days, I’d like to talk a little bit about all of them. In a previous dispatch, I had mentioned that each film was accompanied by at least one short film, and this is the case here. Of all the shorts (none of which were outright bad), the highlights are easily Dawid Ullgren’s erotic and romantic bathhouse drama 1981, about a gay couple’s first, troubled trip to the sauna, and Pre-Drink, a Quebec film that won best Canadian short last year at TIFF, about the first sexual experience between a trans woman and her gay best friend.

From Italy, Laura Bispuri’s Figlia Mia is about a 10-year-old girl torn between two mothers. Her biological mother had given her up to a friend of hers who desperately wanted a child, but now, as her real mother faces the loss of her home, she wants to be a part of her child’s life again. Set along the Sardinian coast, the film has the mythic and melodramatic qualities of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend. In many ways about two women who represent the sun and the moon, they exist on opposite ends of a needle — attracted, repulsed and inseparable. The dry and inhospitable landscape and the different environments of labour serve as a strong backdrop for this unconventional (and non-romantic) love story.

Primas is a documentary about two cousins who experienced unfathomable tragedy and the film is a personal and healing look at recovering from the spiritual and physical traumas of sexual abuse. Subverting voyeurism, director Laura Bari involves the two girls in the shaping of the film. The experience is simultaneously raw and chilling, while also optimistic. The film’s final act, largely set in Montreal, involve workshops in dance and circus, in which the girls work out artistic pieces about their recovery. A film very much about bodies (Rocío’s assault involved being set on fire; 60 per cent of her skin was affected), it uses dance and movement as a therapeutic device. Primas can be difficult to watch as it forces the audience to confront the girl’s testimonials in a long, unbroken shot, but few films have better captured the importance and integrity of reforming justice systems to protect victims of sexual assault.

If I had to choose one film to recommend out of FCVQ, it would be Carol Brandt’s Pet Names, starring/written by Meredith Johnston. A short American fiction about a camping trip, the movie is bright, funny and awkward. Leigh (Johnston) serves as a caretaker for her mom who is sick with cancer. She goes on a camping trip and on a spur of the moment decision, invites along her ex-boyfriend Cam, and his pug. With a square aspect ratio and soft cinematography, this film captures the claustrophobia and anxiety of real intimacy. While so much is left unsaid, the comfort and uncertainty that Leigh and Cam have with each other’s bodies speak to a much greater narrative. Movement and gestures convey so much that goes unsaid, but while some ambiguity remains, the fundamental truths of betrayal, love and heartbreak rise to the surface. A movie that simultaneously captures the gentle affection of back scratching and the mighty witchy powers of whiskey, Pet Names plays with expectations and maintains its sense of humour even through its darkest moments.

The only surefire clunker I watched at FCVQ was Angel Face, a Marion Cotillard vehicle that premiered at Cannes this year. Cotillard plays a bottle blonde alcoholic who has an eight-year-old daughter, Angel Face, who she struggles to care for. An artless and godless Mouchette, the film is nothing more than a series of humiliations levelled at an eight-year-old who also spends a significant portion of the film on an alcoholic bender. Cotillard is, of course, great; she has a way of quivering and giggling that’s so strained with suffering that it feels invasive watching her on the big screen, but it is not enough to recommend the film. So much of Angel Face is framed in tight close-ups that emphasizes the shame, suffering and humiliation of characters; that’s fine but, unfortunately, there is no grand takeaway, so it’s just tragedy porn with a faux-symbolic ending.

Without question, the most bewildering film of the fest is A genoux les gars! a sex comedy about four Arab youths who see their friendship torn apart by a blowjob and a cell-phone video. Offensive doesn’t even begin to cover this film, which features youths who are homophobic, sexist, racist and all-around unwoke. In our “enlightened” era, it’s precisely the kind of film that instills fear into the hearts of critics. Does the film endorse what it depicts? Do you want to be the critic to say you laughed at a movie that takes jabs at consent and suicide? Well, dear audience, I personally found the film mostly hilarious — and was surprised that once the film takes a darker turn, the movie does purposely press into discomfort, as we are forced to reckon with the possible pitfalls (literal and spiritual) of coercive sexual experiences. The movie is like a horrifying Lubitsch sex comedy, but without an ounce of elegance. Perhaps its most difficult aspect is that it clearly subverts victimhood in a really overt way. While the experience of one girl, in particular, is end-of-the-world-level bad, the problem has less to do with her internalization of trauma so much as it does with the expectations and damaging worldview of her friends, family and community.

From Spain, Carmen Y Lola is a lesbian love story about two gypsy teens. Carmen is engaged when she meets Lola at the market. Lola, it seems, is cousins with her fiancé. They strike up a friendship over cigarette breaks and Lola develops a crush. From the earliest moments of the film, we understand that Lola is different. She is not only fairly confident in her desires for women but aspires to be a teacher and escape the limiting expectations her community has on her. Her effect on Carmen is slow but sturdy, as the bubbly young woman becomes increasingly aware that she is not happy with her life and what her future might entail. The film is brightly lit and full of the textures of appetite — bursting with costume jewellery, bare skin and food. It kinda loses its edge in the final act as the fallout of their affair takes centre stage, but still has some beautiful moments. Perhaps one of my favourite scenes of any film I’ve seen this year is a short intimate moment where Lola helps Carmen put on some pink pyjamas, a scene of tenderness and love that is incredibly sensual and loving.

From Israel, Vierges is about a 16-year-old girl who invents the story of a mermaid sighting and suddenly, the once sleepy beach is inundated with people searching to capitalize. With overhead shots of the ocean, with white foam that tangles like shackles and nets, the film frames the sea as a kind of dream trap rather than a more liberating force. Clumsy in a lot of ways, notably the uncritical romance between a 16-year-old and a 30-something journalist, the film nonetheless captures magical realism with a fun and confident vibe. Joy Rieger’s performance balances vulnerability with adolescent rage, an incredible discovery and she holds together all of the film’s varying threads. The movie feels a bit like a hodgepodge, but the central performance is more than strong enough to sustain it.

Thus rounds off my first trip to the FCVQ, a festival that is way better than it has any right to be. The festival’s curatorial spirit is incredible, and it seems as though its scope is ever widening. All the films I had a chance to see were rich and unexpected, programmed alongside complementary short films and introduced with love and care. ■

The Festival de cinéma de la ville de Québec runs through Sept. 22.