Barbarians at the gate

Director Vincent Biron and the lead actors in his new film on the tragedies of hockey, upending expectations and the “aesthetics of disappointment.”

Most could be forgiven for assuming Les barbares de la Malbaie is a raunchy hockey comedy. The trailer certainly hints at it, but it’s more than just about the trailer — the very history of hockey in the movies is rooted in comedy. There are a few exceptions (Indian Horse, Hello Destroyer, 1971’s Face-Off) but hockey on the silver screen is more synonymous with punchlines than gut-punches.

Like most people, I walked into Les barbares de la Malbaie expecting Slap Shot. Instead, I was served a generous helping of ’70s-adjacent buddy drama in the style of Fat City, Scarecrow or The King of Marvin Gardens. (Director Vincent Biron also cites Alexander Payne as a major influence.) There are jokes, to be sure — Biron is re-teaming with the screenwriting team (Eric K. Boulianne, Marc-Antoine Rioux and Alexandre Auger) behind his debut, Prank — but the overall vibe is one of melancholia and broken dreams.

“Eric showed it to me just to get my comments — there was another director attached at that time,” says Biron. “Marc-Antoine and Eric had been working on it for years, and I fell in love with it. I told them ‘It’s crazy, because I don’t even like hockey, but this hockey movie of yours made me cry.’ I said it as a way of congratulating them, you know, ‘Go ahead and make it!’ (laughs) But the director that was attached moved on to another project, and they called me and offered it to me. I immediately abandoned the other thing I was working on and immediately decided this would be my next movie. Against all odds, my second movie was going to be about hockey!”

Vincent Biron and Justin Leyrolles-Bouchard on the set of Les barbares de la Malbaie

Justin Leyrolles-Bouchard stars as 15-year-old JP, who loves hockey but dreams not of becoming a hockey player but an agent. He’s good with numbers and analytics, far preferring them to anything else in his daily life. JP’s gateway to hockey is his cousin Yves (Philippe-Audrey Larrue-Saint-Jacques), a 30-something layabout whose main claim to fame is that he played a single game in the NHL a decade prior before being laid out due to an injury. Yves now plays for the Barbares de la Malbaie, a minor league team in which he takes up a lot of space to very little advantage. It seems that Yves’s career is over after a major injury puts him out of commission, but that’s not the way the boorish, single-minded Yves sees it. He commissions JP to drive him to Thunder Bay, where the team is taking part in a tournament; there, Yves will make his triumphant return — one that is anticipated only by himself and, to a lesser extent, his cousin.

“What I like about it is that it’s likely to be much more representative of the trajectory of 97 per cent of hockey players’ careers,” says Larrue-Saint-Jacques. “We forget about it, I think, because we become so invested in the NHL, but those players are maybe 1 per cent. You have the other 99 per cent who are trying just as hard, and they just don’t make it. There’s a tragedy to that – a perpetual, omnipresent tragedy that no one talks about. We never pretended this was about happy endings, fun characters… There’s a lot of darkness in here. (…) What I like about it is that Yves just constantly disappoints. (laughs) If there’s a Rocky figure in here, an underdog, it’s JP.”

“On the other hand, people want to see JP succeed,” says Leyrolles-Bouchard. “I haven’t heard from people who have seen the film, but from what I’ve interpreted, the film is about JP leaving and doing his own thing.”

Suffice to say that Les barbares de la Malbaie isn’t an underdog story. It’s not about the triumphant return of a guy that no one believed in anymore, but about the potentially destructive power of glory, even in the tiniest form. It’s also a hockey movie that has very little hockey in it. “I’m not really a fan,” says Biron. “Since I do lose my friends during the playoffs, I’m sporadically interested in hockey. But I wouldn’t go as far as to say that it’s not a hockey movie, or an anti-hockey movie: it’s a movie about hockey that revolves around that world. But it’s a film about trajectories, and I think everyone can relate to that. Beyond hockey, we’ve all been JP in some moments and we’ve all been Yves in others. I think not too many people can say that their lives worked out exactly the way they wanted them to! It’s a movie that works for people who love hockey — but also beyond that.”

The role of Yves comes across as a bit of stunt casting for Larrue-Saint-Jacques, who’s best known as a prim-and-proper stand-up comedian who wears a suit onstage and whose material is more likely to revolve around history, poetry and philosophy than the fart jokes Yves is enamored with.

Justin Leyrolles-Bouchard and Philippe-Audrey Larrue-Saint-Jacques

“Yves is so not me,” says Larrue-Saint-Jacques. “There’s maybe 1 per cent of me in there, and even then, I’m not convinced. Yves’s relationship with failure is denial. Vincent and I worked on this idea that perhaps he’s told the story about the injury that kept him out of the NHL so often that he believes it, but perhaps he actually does know he’s lying. If the character comes across as this complete asshole and liar, you won’t feel as much for JP because you’ll think he’s just this kind of dim bulb. But there was also the detail that I had to be good on skates. (laughs) Whether I like it or not, I don’t think I’m that good a skater. For the purposes of the movie, I had to remain credible at all times, and that was difficult. There was a lot of physical work, of hockey training… I even went on Jean-Charles Lajoie’s hockey show on the radio so that I could really immerse myself in the world of hockey.”

 But, as Larrue-Saint-Jacques himself points out, he too knows failure and disappointment. He became a stand-up comedian after his time at the Conservatoire d’art dramatique resulted in… well, not much at all. 

“The points where I connected with the character were rough, too,” says Larrue-Saint-Jacques. “Yves lies to himself to deal with failure; I do the opposite. My career as an actor was a huge failure. Being at the Conservatoire was a major trauma in the same way that Yves’s NHL run was, but my first reflex wasn’t to get down on myself. I don’t want to remain the king of Valleyfield, which is sort of what was happening, and sort of what Yves decided to do. I discovered this character by doing everything the opposite of what I usually do!”

“It’s one of the reasons I cast Phillippe-Audrey,” says Biron. “The character could have been this kind of narcissistic, delusional liar. But Philippe-Audrey has a sort of tenderness and candor that I thought would help smooth out the character on paper. What I like about Alexander Payne is that his characters are kind of always simultaneously a little shitty and a little great. I’m fascinated by that idea. I need to think that human beings are like this, or otherwise I wouldn’t be able to deal with my own darkness. I need to think that the times I’ve been an asshole don’t necessarily erase all the times that I did something right. I hope it comes through in the film that Yves isn’t just this asshole — he’s someone who’s ill-equipped to be a good person, because he has too many regrets. He’s smothered by regrets, and he doesn’t have the tools to overcome them.”

“JP believes in Yves even when people tell him not to,” says Leyrolles-Bouchard, “but in the end they have different goals that are in the same direction.”

The settings in the film tend towards the shabby: JP and Yves drive through Abitibi on the way to Thunder Bay in a grey, ever-expanding landscape of dirty snow and brownness. “During pre-production, I defined it as ‘the aesthetics of deception,’” says Biron. “Everything has to be disappointing in this movie. JP leaves with this idea that he’s headed towards glory when, in fact, it’s a slow descent into hell. We were scouting bars for the shoot and I just kept saying, ‘Too nice! Not ugly enough! Needs to be more disappointing!’ My director of photography would present me with a specific framing, and I’d have to reject it. “The lighting’s too nice! Not disappointing enough!” (laughs) I always wanted it uglier.”

Jean-Michel Anctil and Philippe-Audrey Larrue-Saint-Jacques

That ugliness extends to all the things that Yves plays up for JP: Thunder Bay (which he calls “sort of Northern Ontario’s New York”), every bar, every hotel, every place where Yves is greeted with even minor acclaim. “That’s the reality of these small hockey leagues,” says Biron. “The glam to which everyone aspires. I’ve lived it with cinema as well. You get invited to a festival overseas, you get so excited, and when you get there, it’s not at all what you’re dreaming about. You need to learn to accept these things. That’s JP’s quest.”

Les barbares de la Malbaie is also a road-trip movie, one that spends a lot of time with our characters (and Maureen, an anglo on her way to Calgary that the guys pick up, played by Erin Carter) in close quarters.

“The car was a 1996 Nissan Sentra,” says Larrue-Saint-Jacques.

“Two-door,” adds Leyrolles-Bouchard, who spends much of the movie driving, even though he’s actually too young to even have a licence.

“Just a real piece of shit,” says Larrue-Saint-Jacques. “The guy who owned it called it a collector’s item. What collection?!”

“At some point, one of the parts busted,” says Leyrolles-Bouchard. “We needed to repair it, and there was only one spare part of this type… in the States. In Texas or something.”

One of the gambles of making a film like Les barbares de la Malbaie is that hockey fans may not necessarily take to a film that depicts their passion (but, really, just a small and specific sliver of their passion) in such an unflattering fashion. “I’ve actually been getting really good feedback,” says Biron. “I’ve had mega-fans of hockey tell me they loved it, which was reassuring. Honestly, it’s not really an angle I pushed too much because I thought the story was very much happening off the ice. One of the Telefilm analysts wrote in her report after we submitted it for financing that it was about ‘the periphery of hockey.’ Ultimately, there’s something in it for everyone. I can’t imagine anyone being disappointed unless they wanted a movie about the glory of athletes and the sanctity of the sport — and those films have already been made. That’s not what this one is.” ■

Les barbares de la Malbaie opens in theatres on Friday, Nov. 22. Watch the trailer here: