Arsenault et fils Rafael Ouellet

Rafaël Ouellet’s dreamy poaching drama Arsenault et Fils is a crime thriller with a twist

We spoke with director Rafaël Ouellet about his long-awaited return to the big screen.

The air is thick with tension in Rafaël Ouellet’s long-awaited return to the big screen with Arsenault et Fils. Following a family of hunters who also engage in illegal poaching, the film is set in the rural Quebec town of Témiscouata. The central conflict hinges on the drastic differences between two brothers — the bear-like and soft-spoken Adam (Guillaume Cyr) and the wiry, impulsive (Pierre-Paul Alain) — particularly after the arrival in town of a charming radio host, Émilie (Karine Vanasse). The overcast setting and dark interiors lend the movie a noir atmosphere, and the screenplay leans heavily into the moral greyness of the proceedings. 

Drawing on some images from childhood, writer and director Rafaël Ouellet slowly began to build a screenplay. As he began researching contemporary poaching, he was surprised by how exciting and unknown that world was.

“I did my research, and it’s rarely been a subject in art,” says Ouellet. “You’ll have a game warden character every once in a while, but it’s rarely central to the story. It occurred to me that I can write a story about a crime family, like The Godfather, but I don’t need drugs or prostitution or casinos. I can do something fresh about a subject rarely seen in cinema: poaching.

“I was excited to get into a subject that felt fresh. It fed my imagination. Meeting with conservation officers over the past 10 years, I have so many incredible anecdotes to make a whole other film or even a series.”

He described how his first meetings with officers were a bit tense because they didn’t want to reveal too much about how they work, but they seemed more eager over time. One of the challenges was finding a way to bring relatively unknown subjects to the screen and have a general audience understand the comings and goings without being too didactic or expository. 

“I wanted people to be entertained, of course, but also walk away having learned something about that world in the same way that you walk out of a movie like Michael Mann’s Thief or The Godfather and you feel as though you better understand a world that most people know little about.”

In his words, it wasn’t about making a mythological cowboy and Indians story but rather examining and bringing to the screen the way things work, the protocols and methods used to catch poachers.

“Even if it’s not a documentary, I wanted people to learn something.” 

The tension and suspense emerge from strained relations and an impending raid on the family, a beautiful counterbalance of internal and external conflicts. The atmosphere of paranoia, misguided loyalty and pervasive loneliness almost serve to infect all aspects of the characters’ lives, often dissolving lines between reality and dream. While Ouellet mentioned Mann’s Thief, in some ways Arsenault & Fils ends up being more evocative of the much dreamier Manhunter and how falling into a criminal world impacts your psychological well-being. 

“I saw the film as an opportunity to have fun and create strong cinematic images. That atmosphere permitted me to get into Anthony’s head. He’s stressed and always running around, aggressive. I wanted to calm him down a bit and get into his interiority. I imagined that he could become a deer.” This dreamlike sequence becomes an instigation of the final act — a revelatory and compulsive moment that takes everything too far. “There was this idea of him becoming an animal and, in a way, having to hunt himself.” 

The film features a who’s who of Quebec cinema, with a supporting cast including Luc Picard, Micheline Lanctôt and Julien Poulin, among others. Almost everyone who appears on screen was an actor he imagined for the role. Despite being star-studded, the world feels remarkably embodied as characters effortlessly fall into characters with long histories and lived-in relationships. 

Ouellet explains that everything just clicked behind the scenes. Recalling the first scene Pierre-Paul Alain would shoot, a tense picnic sitting across from some of the greatest legends of Quebec cinema, he remarks on how nervous the less-experienced Alain was. All that quickly faded away, though. Ouellet explains that there was “a lot of kindness and love on set. It helps to shoot outside of Montreal. You’re together like a theatre troupe or a big family. I think it shows on the screen.” 

Over a decade in the making, with struggles with financing that bled into a once-in-a-century pandemic, Arsenault et Fils is finally ready for its big-screen debut. “I think one of the main things I want people to take away from the film is this idea of ‘bienveillance,'” Ouellet says, “in terms of how we treat ourselves and others. When we’re lucky enough to have a family, we take care of those links, which can also extend to nature as well.” ■

Arsenault et Fils, directed by Rafaël Ouellet

Arsenault et Fils opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, June 17.

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