(b. 1951 Montreal, Quebec)
One of the most austere and compelling of contemporary Canadian and Québécois filmmakers, Bernard Émond is best known for his trilogy on the three Christian virtues: La neuvaine (2005), Contre toute espérance (2007) and La donation (2009). Epic in theme and reach but decidedly intimate in tone, these three films focus on characters who, for different reasons, are out of step with contemporary times. This premise also figures prominently in Émond’s earlier narrative features, La femme qui boit (2001) and 2017, rue Darling (both of which played the prestigious Critics Week at the Cannes Film Festival), as well as some of the films he’s written, including the critically praised Ce qu’il faut pour vivre, directed by Benoît Pilon.
Most of Émond’s fictional characters are striving for a sense of transcendence and purpose, or at least something more sublime and permanent than what they see in the modern world. Émond has half-jokingly described his quiet and meditative work as a revolutionary salvo against the image-soaked culture in which we live. (His characters are often on some kind of odyssey, either into the past – as in La femme qui boit and 20h17, rue Darling – or into the countryside, as in La neuvaine and La donation.)
Émond studied anthropology at the Université de Montreal, and began his career writing, directing and editing documentaries, many with an ethnographic focus. In the 1980s he worked as an instructor for the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation. This experience served as the inspiration for the hero in Ce qu’il faut pour vivre, whom the government removes from his home in the Far North and brings south to a sanitarium in Quebec City after he is diagnosed with tuberculosis.
In 1990 Émond made the short fiction film La manière des blancs, which was produced by Bernadette Payeur for ACPAV. Payeur would go on to produce all of his fiction features beginning with La femme qui boit in 2001. That film would also be Émond’s first collaboration with the great Elise Guilbault, who would appear in two installments of Émond’s trilogy. La femme qui boit focuses on Paulette, a woman who looks back on her life and years of alcohol abuse. Refined yet intense, the film is dominated by long takes (often with a handheld camera) and a profound sensitivity to the indignities Paulette suffers, often at the hands of her lover, Frank (Luc Picard). Paulette’s long decline is contrasted with the rigidity of the society in which she lives. (The film begins in the 1930s and traverses several decades.)
Émond’s next film, 20h17, rue Darling, also deals with a character fighting his past. Unemployed crime reporter Gerard Langlois (Luc Picard) returns home late after being delayed only to find an explosion in his apartment building has killed six people. Crippled by survivor guilt, he begins to investigate what transpired but is hampered by his wastrel past and his reputation as a bottom feeder. (A recovering alcoholic who’s six months sober, he’s crashed and burned through three marriages.)
Both films were very well received; La femme qui boit earned five Jutra nominations (including best film) and a Genie for Elyse Guilbault’s performance, while 20h17, rue Darling won six Jutras. They also made Canada’s Top Ten, the annual listing organized by the Toronto International Film Festival, and played at numerous international and Canadian festivals.
Dealing with the theme of faith, Émond’s next film, La neuvaine, follows Jeanne (Elsye Guilbault), a physician who is struggling to come to terms with a horrific event for which she feels responsible. Planning on committing suicide, she journeys to Quebec’s Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, a beautiful, sparsely populated region north of Quebec City. There she encounters François (Patrick Drolet), a young man who is coping with the loss of his grandmother. In one of the film’s most unforgettable sequences, Jeanne visits a famous Catholic shrine, which Émond presents in a lengthy, elegant pan. Émond’s most commercially successful movie, La neuvaine struck a chord in Quebec and in 2010 was named the best Québécois film of the last decade by the association of Quebec film critics. The film was nominated for eight Jutras and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten features of 2005.
The second installment in Émond’s trilogy, Contre toute espérance addresses the theme of hope and is possibly the most emotionally direct movie in the series. The film focuses on a middle-aged couple: truck driver Gilles (Guy Jodoin) and Réjeanne (Guylaine Tremblay, who worked with Émond on 20h17, rue Darling), who have finally cobbled enough money together to buy a house. Their future is endangered when Gilles’ health fails and Réjeanne is callously laid off. In a rage, Réjeanne confronts her former boss, who is oblivious to the impact of his decisions. A powerful indictment of the impersonal nature of contemporary society – and especially the lack of support for those who are falling through the cracks – Contre toute espérance is the most underrated installment in the trilogy and also the bleakest and most harrowing. It was nominated for four Jutras, including best best direction and best screenplay.
The trilogy’s final installment, La donation, deals with the theme of charity. Picking up the tale of Elise Guilbault’s Jeanne Dion a few years later, the film is set in Normétal in Quebec’s rural Abitibi region. Answering an ad by the local doctor Yves Rainville (Jacques Godin), who is nearing retirement and seeking a replacement, Jeanne journeys there in search of a more fulfilling position than her current one in an emergency ward. Upon her arrival, as Rainville takes her through his daily routine, she soon realizes that, although there are fewer patients, they require a much larger commitment. As Jeanne wrestles with her decision, Émond asserts, as Jesse Wente puts it, “that connections be remade between people and place, and more urgently between each other, in order to recognize once again the beauty and shared bond of existence.” Scandalously, the film was ignored by the Jutras, but it did receive prizes from the Quebec film critics association and the Locarno International Film Festival. It was also awarded a Special Jury Citation at the 2009 Toronto International Film Festival and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten. (Émond has appeared on the list four times – more than any other filmmaker.)
Émond’s work shares affinities with great European masters like Robert Bresson and Michelangelo Antonioni (though Émond himself is more likely to cite Roberto Rossellini as an influence). It’s a profoundly untrendy aesthetic in a post-Tarantino world where references to kitschy television shows and fast food are passed off as content, and may be one of the reasons his work isn’t as well known as it should be. (Why he isn’t as heralded as a filmmaker like Hirokazu Kore-eda, with whom he shares many affinities, is somewhat dispiriting – though his international reputation is growing, as evinced by his popularity at film festivals.)
Émond also plays off familiar themes in Québécois cinema, in particular the belief that rural life offers a more valuable and virtuous experience than urban life. But the oppositions he explores in his work are far from the valorization of the countryside (or, in some cases, the disparagement of it) evident in some of the more commercially-minded films made in the province. In Émond’s work, nature not only provides us with a window on a transcendent reality, but also allows us to see ourselves more accurately. (Émond is in fact an agnostic, but deeply respectful of his characters’ beliefs.) One of the glories of his oeuvre, in fact, is its sense of hope in the face of tragic events, a hope that feels earned both because of the rigorous nature of the films’ aesthetics and their refusal to look away or ignore harsher realities.