A Respectable Woman Bernard Émond

Bernard Émond delves into class, desire and social mores in 1930s Quebec in his new film

An interview with the great Québécois filmmaker about bringing A Respectable Woman to the screen.

Set in the 1930s, the latest film by Bernard Émond, A Respectable Woman, revolves around a woman torn by desire. Rose Lemey (Hélène Florent) is a bourgeois in Trois Rivières. Years earlier, she married a man from the working class, Paul Emile Lemay (Martin Dubrueil). Under the shadow of Duplessis and the Catholic Church, the pair never divorced, even as her husband moved out and started a family with another woman. 

As the film begins, her husband’s mistress is sick and dying. Faced with the enormous pressures of appearing as a respectable woman and an upstanding member of society, Rose foregoes her desires and takes in her husband’s children. Despite longing for Paul Emile’s touch, her pride does not allow her to open her heart or bed to him. Though she knows this will only drive a wedge between them, she wants to maintain respectability at any cost. 

Rippling with intense emotions just below the surface, A Respectable Woman thrives in the in-betweens. Hélène Florent delivers a restrained and devastating performance of a woman who has spent a lifetime doing what is right. A woman of tremendous physical and emotional control, Rose excels at maintaining composure. Florent’s performance thrives on micro-expressions, a twitch of an eye, a brief hesitation. Even alone, she seems unable to let go entirely. 

A Respectable Woman fits into a career-long examination for Bernard Émond — one of the great filmmakers of Quebec cinema — on the nature of restraint and the contradictions of moral good. The underlying void in a post-spiritual world echoes through his films. Without the structure of belief, where do we find meaning? Despite the specificity of the location, the film touches on universal questions of social responsibility and individual desires. What price do we pay to live a good, moral life? Is it worth it? 

Bernard Émond spoke to Cult MTL about the novella that inspired the film, working with actors and the horror of childhood. 

Justine Smith: Can you tell me more about the story by Luigi Pirandello that inspired the film?

Bernard Émond: He’s better known for his theatre, but he wrote over 300 short stories. He had a project to write one a day for a year. The book is called Short Stories for One Year, and his stories have an extraordinary breadth. The Taviani brothers adapted some of his short stories in the film Kaos (1984), which I highly recommend. There’s always a much darker vein, dealing with petty bourgeois life in marriages that don’t succeed. His stories have texture, great attention to detail, to nuance. 

When I read that novella — the Italian title is beautiful, Pena di vivere cosi — it’s about the pain of living in the moment. I was caught by [the main character]. She is complex and contradictory, like we all are. We tend to forget that. Why does she take him back? Does she desire him? Why does she want the children? And it’s the same with her husband. Why is it [that he returns to her]? Is it to take care of his children? Both characters are caught in a web of contradictory emotions and desires. And that’s what I like about that story because it’s complex. It has a complexity of life and the beauty of life. 

JS: The film’s title changes from the novella’s. What do you mean by “respectable woman”?

Bernard Émond: She’s respectable because she’s part of the city establishment. Part of the film’s background is the class difference between this woman, a child of the bourgeoisie, and her husband, who studied in a classical college but is a worker’s son. He speaks like a worker’s son. That clash of cultures is interesting to me. She makes respectable choices. She won’t sleep with her husband even though she wants to. She’s responsible because she decides to be charitable and take the children. But the beauty of the story is that it goes beyond respectability, and we see that respectability comes at a price.

JS: Can you talk about adapting the story and how you change the setting of the film to Trois Rivières? 

Bernard Émond: The story was written in the 1930s, so I didn’t change the time period. Class difference was so evident at the time. There was such a difference between the working class and the bourgeoisie under Duplessis. It was almost like a knife separated the (society). At the time, Trois Rivières had the biggest paper production plant in the world — 12,000 workers. Now, all of that has disappeared. There’s still this park along the river… I feel that the old city in Trois Rivières is like a secret. I love the architecture and the story of the town. It resonates with me. 

JS: What was it like working with Hélène Florent? She has a challenging role. She’s always maintaining a respectable exterior, but we, the audience, can see these nuances in her expression. Yet, her motivations are not always clear to us either. She’s filled with contradictions. How did you build this character with her? 

Bernard Émond: We read and reread the story, and we had many rehearsals with Martin (Dubreuil). It’s strange, how the film and the character are built. You start with an idea and discuss and try things in rehearsal. It doesn’t work. There comes a moment, if we work well together, where something we try in rehearsal — we all know, all three of us. We find truth in it. Now, we only have to place the camera. 

JS: Do you always use rehearsals?

Bernard Émond: Always. I couldn’t do without it. I think the people who (don’t rehearse) are talented, and they do an incredibly difficult job, often in no time. I know how privileged I was, but I couldn’t work any other way.

Bernard Émond A Respectable woman
A Respectable Woman, directed by Bernard Émond

JS: You’re also working with the children; people always say how challenging that can be. And there’s a lot of nuance with them because as characters they’re so eager to be loved and to please. So how did you work with them? 

Bernard Émond: I’m an old man. I was a young father 50 years ago and don’t have much contact with children anymore. I worked with Marie-Claude St.Laurent, who was a coach, and she prepared the children. She prepared them so well that she knew how to talk with them. Talking with children 50 years ago and now is not the same. We were playing good cop, bad cop. She was a good mother, and I was “père sévère,” and it worked. 

JS: They seem like children. Sometimes in cinema, children are portrayed as little adults.

Bernard Émond: I hate cute (laughs). I think there’s a “cutification” of childhood now. I hate it. Not only is it false, but at the same time, it makes children little gods. And I hate that profoundly. I think it’s a malady of civilization. It’s bad for children; it’s bad for everybody. I don’t like the beautification of childhood. It’s a tough time for many kids. Growing up is difficult. Adults are difficult. There’s a French writer of the 1950s, I don’t remember his name, but he starts one of his novels by saying, “I will let nobody say that being 20 years old is the best time of your life.” It’s the same for children. 

JS: I also find the way you portray the Church in the film. They play a bureaucratic and social role, as much as a religious one. 

Bernard Émond: The clergy needed to be human and practical. The priest loves Rose – maybe he even baptized her. He knows her well, he knows her family. He wants to help. There’s a structural context to that. The Church was all-conquering in the 1930s. There’s a stereotype of Quebec cinema, the “le mauvais curé” (the bad priest) — it’s everywhere. It’s compulsive. I’m not a believer, but I find the automatic repudiation of everything they did not to my taste. There were abusers, of course, but they were the minority, like in any human sphere. There is a minority of really bad people, a large portion of so-so ones and a few very good people. Some nuns and priests did good work, and they were important. In the history of Quebec, they gave structure to a conquered society, but I don’t want to get into that. But I know I tried to stay nuanced.

The priest is doing his best. He doesn’t understand too much. At the same time, he’s an agent of the nobles. He’s part of the system. He knows she has connections. At the same time, he’s a good man. He tries his best. 

A Respectable Woman (directed by Bernard Émond)

A Respectable Woman opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Aug. 18. 

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