Maria Chapdelaine

The new adaptation of Quebec lit classic Maria Chapdelaine bucks all trends

We spoke with Sébastien Pilote about adapting a sacred text of Quebec literature and of culture in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean.

Written by French writer Louis Hémon in 1913 after an extended sojourn in Lac Saint-Jean, Maria Chapdelaine has become a sacred text not only of Quebec “terroir” literature but also of culture in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean. Growing up there, I never felt like I needed to read the book because it was already such a part of the ambient culture.

“I feel like people talk more about what has been said about Maria Chapdelaine than about the novel itself,” says the film’s director, Sébastien Pilote. “I get the impression that those people haven’t necessarily read it. They bring up the same quotes and look at it from the perspective of recycling; conservatives and the Catholic Church repurposed the novel, when in fact, Louis Hémon was a very free man. He was actively avoiding family, he was actively avoiding the bourgeoisie, he hated the clergy… It’s very strange, the way his work was recycled and rebranded after his death. Maria Chapdelaine is often used to describe Quebec as being a backwards, frozen place where nothing changes — which is absurd when you read the book. It’s a book about metamorphosis — about seasons changing, about characters growing.”

Sixteen-year-old Maria Chapdelaine (Sara Montpetit) lives with her parents (Hélène Florent and Sébastien Ricard) and siblings in a wild and untamed area of Lac Saint-Jean, where her father is determined to clear the land in order to live off it. Seasonal workers come and go as Maria ages into womanhood; eventually, three suitors come into her orbit. Fur trapper François Paradis (Émile Schneider), a free spirit with an untamable wanderlust, promises Maria that he will return in the spring, after his next expedition, and marry her. In the meantime, she also meets Lorenzo Surprenant (Robert Naylor), a factory worker living in Boston who promises progress and modernity, and Eutrope Gagnon (Antoine Olivier Pilon), a determined young farmer whose life goals are essentially running parallel to the Chapdelaine family’s. Maria finds herself unsure of what decision to take as she waits for François to return, weighing the options of freedom, progress or stasis.

There’s been an upwards trend in Quebec film and TV in the last few years where classic works from literature are being reimagined as darker, sexier versions of themselves. The obvious example is the series Les Pays d’en haut, which brings a revisionist eye to Claude-Henri Grignon’s 1933 novel Un homme et son pêché. It would be obvious to assume that Pilote’s version of Maria Chapdelaine would exist along those lines — but it does not. There are no duels or brooding characters riding horses in the book, which in turn means there are none in the film.

Maria Chapdelaine, starring Sara Montpetit

“It’s a book that’s very easy to adapt in that sense,” says Pilote. “There are a lot of rich details, but the structure is simple. It has a sort of soap opera side to it that I wanted to keep, but I also wanted to give the viewer total immersion into that world. I wanted to respect the way time passed at that time; it’s a movie that is two hours and forty minutes long, but it goes by pretty quickly. It’s over two hours long so viewers who are used to binging… if I had put two sets of credits in the middle of the movie, everyone would’ve binged it! (laughs)”

The film also avoids overly old-timey or affected period slang. In his research, Pilote found that our general idea of the way people used to speak in remote areas of Quebec is not necessarily accurate. 

“I wanted to avoid the clichés, but I also wanted it to reflect the way the book is written,” he says. “It was important to me to keep the poetry of the original writing. I integrated all kinds of things from elsewhere in my script, though. There’s Gaston Miron, William Blake… It’s all over the place.”

Pilote (who is also a native of Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, where he shot all of his films and, in fact, still lives) has carried the idea of adapting Maria Chapdelaine for some time.

“I discovered Maria Chapdelaine with the Gilles Carle movie from 1984,” says Pilote. “I was fascinated by the story, even though I was very young. I read the book later, in CÉGEP, maybe, but I don’t really remember it. After university, I was working on a documentary project called Le complexe d’Eutrope, which was about the idea of thinking you have nothing to offer when in fact you have everything to offer. It didn’t work out, but at that point I had become pretty familiar with the novel. It’s while I was preparing my second film, Le démantèlement, that it started to take form. I was in a cottage working on pre-production and there was only one book in the library there: Maria Chapdelaine. I re-read it, and when I was done, I knew — it was going to be my next project. Any anxiety or doubt I might have had about it flew out the window. If there had been 10 previous adaptations, I still would’ve wanted to do the 11th.”

“I felt like the three previous films had been overly complicated,” he continues. “To me, it was a very simple story, and these adaptations had missed that simplicity. For example, that Maria is about 16 completely defines the complexity of the character. The other films depicted her as a sort of virginal goody-two-shoes, because all three actresses who had played her previously were in their 30s. Obviously, if you still live with your parents at that age in that time period, it means something different! (laughs) The casting made Maria into a kind of spinster, when in fact she’s just a teenager. She’s just quiet because she’s surrounded by adults who talk a lot!” ■

Maria Chapdelaine opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 24.

Maria Chapdelaine, directed by Sébastien Pilote

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