Première Vague

Montreal pandemic film Première vague is fiction that feels very real

We spoke with producer Jarrett Mann of Kino Montreal about making a film set during the first 100 days of COVID.

When Première vague premiered at the RVQC a few weeks ago, producer and Kino head honcho Jarrett Mann went on the podcast Les mystérieux étonnants to plug the film and was asked a question that stayed in my mind when I watched the film: are we ready, as a society, to see a film about the pandemic? 

There have already been a few films about the pandemic (notably Doug Liman’s Locked Down) but Première vague is the first film about how the pandemic affected Montreal. The empty streets we see in the film depicting the first 100 days of lockdown are the very same empty streets I saw myself a year or so ago. There is indeed something very bracing and immediate about watching Première vague now, as there usually is with any film depicting the very recent past. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to reveal that the pandemic isn’t over by the time Première vague ends, however, which gives the film a particularly bittersweet aura.

“It’s one of the challenges we face,” says Mann. “It can be difficult to convince people to give the film a chance. Some people are reticent, being overexposed to the pandemic as we are. But that’s exactly what we’re saying: for the last year, it’s been weaved into the fabric of our daily lives. All we see are news updates and press conferences with the Prime Minister. To see a fiction film that happens within that context — a context that’s still ongoing, as you say — there’s something comforting about the movie. It makes us feel less isolated. It feels good to see ourselves on screen. Cinema is a reflection of our lives, and right now, we no longer see ourselves on-screen. Most movies and television, barring a few exceptions, exist outside of the pandemic. We no longer see ourselves represented. I think that’s what makes this interesting, being able to see ourselves on-screen while the events are still unfolding.”

Mathieu Lorain Dignard in Première vague

Première vague is an ensemble film weaving together four strands, each of which is directed by a different filmmaker (Max Dufaud, Kevin T. Landry, Reda Lahmouid and Rémi Fréchette). One focuses on a delivery driver (Fayolle Jean Jr.) who sees his schedule fill up while also having to care for his sick father (Fayolle Jean). In another strand, a young woman from the suburbs (Myranda Plourde) moves to Montreal only to find herself growing increasingly germaphobic as she’s locked down with a roommate who skirts the rules. Another sees a sex worker (Marie-Sophie Roy) watch her revenue dwindle while her mother contracts COVID-19 in a CHSLD, while the final strand focuses on a customer service rep (Mathieu Lorain Dignard) who slowly unravels in isolation after a breakup in the early days of the pandemic.

The second film produced by Kino Montreal, Première vague is obviously operating at a much lower budget than other pandemic productions. A sizable portion of the film is made of footage from elsewhere, from the news footage and copious footage of François Legault and his press conferences.

“It was very difficult,” says Mann. “We were preparing this shoot before any production had even gotten the green light to start up again on the entire territory of Quebec. We were just waiting — we didn’t know when we’d be able to shoot or even if we’d be able to shoot. We were waiting for the CNESST guide with the different procedures to come out before we made a move. It came out a few weeks before we started the shoot. The challenge became to form very small teams in order to limit the amount of people on set, and to cast it in a way where the actors we cast in the film were part of bubbles. Roommates, real couples or a father and son in the case of the Jeans. We tried to accommodate that as much as possible, but there are people who aren’t a couple in real life as well. We had to write around it so that people see each other through a window or a door without it being too obvious.”

Première vague
Marie-Sophie Roy in Première vague

Though there are four directors behind Première vague, it doesn’t unfold in four separate vignettes. Each segment was shot independently by four different directors with four different teams and the four stories are woven together with a surprising amount of unification in terms of visual language and tone. For lack of a better term, it looks like a whole.

“It’s something we’re very proud of,” says Mann. “The four filmmakers did a great job on that aspect. From the beginning of the idea, before we even had filmmakers attached, the goal was to make an ensemble movie that had a coherent tone. It needed to form a whole, without feeling sudden shifts in tone between the stories. There was a lot of work done on the writing end to come to an agreement on the tone, the structure, the ways the stories would overlap. We then met with all the directors of photography to agree on a visual throughline; that way, we’d avoid huge discrepancies in style. There really was a lot of work done to ensure that it formed a whole.”

There’s also a certain level of improvisational dexterity necessary to pulling off a film like Première vague, since the world is continually changing around you while you’re trying to depict it. The most egregious example of that is a supporting role of sorts for the infamous whale that swam up the St. Lawrence last year. The whale is featured prominently both through footage and through the plot of the film, where it becomes (as it did in real life) a contradictory symbol of the times.

“That’s the real whale!” says Mann. “I pored over YouTube to find that footage and track down the people it belonged to so we could use it in the film. Thanks to everyone for letting us use it! It’s funny because the movie is about the first 100 days of the pandemic in Montreal, but we started writing it before it had even been 100 days. The whale showed up pretty late — we first saw it in late May and met its tragic end around June 8, so it came pretty late in the writing process. It was perfect for the story directed by Max Dufaud and for his character who begins to fixate on the whale. It’s a tragic metaphor. When the whale showed up last year, everyone saw it as a beacon of hope — it accompanied the arrival of summer, a drop in cases, it seemed like the worst was behind us. But we know, of course, that it ended tragically.”

Première vague
Myranda Plourde in Première vague

As I mentioned above, Première vague doesn’t necessarily mirror most movies in that it ends before the period of upheaval it depicts is over. It functions as a time capsule rather than a document with a clear beginning, middle and end. 

“That’s the beauty of this project,” says Mann. “It’s what will make it unique forever. It’s the fact that we wrote, shot and edited it while the events it depicts were still unfolding. It’s particularly true of the writing. We didn’t even know there would be a second and third wave. Our vision hadn’t been affected in that way, and we were still very naive as many were at the beginning. We’ll never again have the perception we had at the time. If we wanted to make a movie set in the first 100 days now, it would be completely different. The press conferences wouldn’t feel the same. Lockdown wouldn’t feel the same. It’s completely unique, and I want to tip my hat to the 60 volunteers that worked on this movie. It’s unique, and it’s something we can be proud of forever. It’ll be even more interesting as time goes by, and watching it in a few years will be a totally different experience.” ■

Première vague opens at Cinéma Beaubien on Friday, May 14. Watch the trailer here:

Première vague, directed by Max Dufaud, Kevin T. Landry, Reda Lahmouid and Rémi Fréchette

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