La mort d’un bûcheron (Gilles Carle, 1973)

I recognize in Gilles Carles’ work contradictions and absurdities that I relate to in my own aesthetic sensibilities. I wonder if it is a simple coincidence, or an obscure reflection of our shared culture and home. I’m reluctant to commit myself to this idea, if only because I have always felt a kind of divide between my world and that of the French Canadian. I’m not even sure if this divide is real, if it is as fabricated as archaic racial segregation or politically charged hate mongering. We live after all in the same city, in the same neighbourhoods and more or less affected by the same social and political trends. Still, it seems to me, if the divide exists in our minds, then it must be real, at least on some level…

La mort d’un bucheron is an absurd and yet, tragic story of a young woman’s escape from rural life to find her father in Montreal. She arrives in the city, finds a job as a topless country singer and loses touch with what she is really looking for. The first half of the film is concentrated on her rise to minor fame and her disillusionment with men. Carle seems fascinated by the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, and he both exploits and deconstructs it. He takes all and any opportunity to fetishize and undress Carole Laure, but he also acknowledges the vulnerability in her nudity and femininity. It is neither an idealization of woman, nor is it a portrait of martyrdom… it lies somewhere in between, a story of a real woman, in a real world. She seems to be a captive of her beauty, at once idealized, but also feared; especially when she breaks free from behind the lens or beyond the confines of the stage.

This is most apparent in one of the film’s most captivating sequences. Laure seems to have been hired to act in some kind of avant-garde performance where she is a naked animal. It’s set in almost complete darkness, with light only slightly touching on her exposed form. Her performance is feral and beautiful, and the way it is shot abstracts her humanity, creating animalistic shapes and forms. This is possibly the longest “performance” scene of the film, and both the audience within the film and outside it, can’t help being completely drawn in Laure’s strength. The scene ends though, with her attacking the director… she never seems to break from character, but that action generates some fairly negative consequences for her, and is quite possibly the catalyst that inspires a significant narrative shift.

Marie Chapdelaine(Laure) is trapped and defined by the men around her; her boss, her boyfriend and her non-present father. They are all nonetheless human, never caricatures of abusive male figures, though they are still judged as reprehensible, at least in their treatment of Marie. There seems to be self-awareness in the depiction of the male characters, as if Carle saw himself in them. Not that I’m suggesting that he was violent towards women, but that his vision and use of women in film is somehow comparable and morally ambiguous.

The most self-aware sequence is again, a scene when Laure is modelling. Her character complains of sickness as she parades around a meat locker in a fur coat, trying to look beautiful and appealing. The exposed corpses of dead pigs surround and disgust her, but she has to keep smiling. Unlike the later scene where she herself becomes an animal, this scene does not focus on her beauty, preferring instead to explore the openness of the dead pig’s bodies.

Carle has an interesting and apt understanding of how the sexual revolution was used against women. How businessmen used this as an opportunity to sell women for sex; “everyone is doing it”, “it’s philosophical”, or “something”. His characters don’t pull any punches, and are as blunt with their words as they are with their fists. At once though, he also does show and understand that women are sexual beings. Marie is not a frail flower, strung along by her desire to be loved and needed. Her desires are conflicted as she is often caught between modernity and tradition, but she is nonetheless a sentient sexual being. Perhaps the most telling moment in the film, she is having sex with her boyfriend, and is begging him to wait so they can orgasm together, he doesn’t, and she is obviously disappointed. The scene is obvious, but at the same time, the way it is shot and verbalized is desperate and sad. Taking into account Carle’s affinity for comedy and absurd, it’s a moment that is perfectly on the mark and demonstrates his affinity and respect for his characters. It is the zenith of a failed revolution.

What truly makes Carle’s films exceptional though, is the perverse sense of humour that underscores the melodrama and absurdity of the plot. As thematically telling as Laure’s “audition” scene is, it is also quite funny. The constant and nearly indecipherable ramble of Armand makes the scene palatable, not only eliminating a lot of the anxiety but downplaying the seedy eroticism that he himself is trying to promote. I find all of the musical sequences compelling, nearly all of them fun, and surprisingly, none are gratuitous; each serving the plot and characters. It’s a film despite its liberal nudity and strangely poignant violence, that never quite feels “icky” from a modern perspective.

Gilles Carle is one of those filmmakers little known outside of Quebec, and even within the province, his work is only recently widely available. La mort d’un bucheron is widely known as his best film, and was nominated for a Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival in 1973. It is also famous for launching the international career of Carole Laure, who is best known for gyrating in chocolate in Makavejev’s Sweet Movie. The film does not have subtitles, and even though I’m technically fluent in French, I have to admit having difficulty with some of the heavily colloquialized dialogue.

I only wish I could use some screen caps to demonstrate how good this film looks. It is an exceptional looking film that is not only competent, but extremely creative and stimulating. I’m trying to fix my DVD drive for my laptop, but we’ll see if I can get some caps from other source. Look out for them in the next few days.

4 responses to “La mort d’un bûcheron (Gilles Carle, 1973)

  1. Ha, I was reading this and your description of this animalistic avant-garde performance make me think, “this sounds like ‘Sweet Movie'”.

    I remember we had an exchange long ago about Sweet Movie when it was on your to-see list; I’ve forgotten if you ever got to see it yet? (I have not).

    I think I first mentioned that chocolate scene to you; now I feel bad that I’ve forgotten whether you wrote about it after a viewing (I’m inclining to think you did).

    Anyway, you’re being a very busy bee here. . .

  2. I saw Sweet Movie fairly recently, within the last two or three months. I thought it was interesting, maybe bogged down by crazy political stuff. I preferred the most absurd sexual scenes and fantastic artistic design. Also the best use of the Montreal Milk Bottle.

    Busy and bored.

  3. Well, your “bored” is more productive than my ‘energized’ or ‘excited’ (not that I’ve suffered even those delusive states of late, thanks to the flu).

    When I alighted on this entry, my very first thought was, “Is she watching one of those old Metzger movies or something?” After reading it, I could see the sort of ‘cowgirl’ ambience in her dress, look and mood, but of course it also has that kind of bizarre 70s Eurotrashy sci-fi feel to it (which most people, myself included, can’t seem to help but love).

    Your shot from the epochal liquid chocolate scene in “Sweet Movie” only further fuels my sweettooth itch to see it. I hope that scene at least delivered for you in the ecstatic/horrific way it’s been writen up by critics before.

    I recall that you loved Bird with the Crystal Plumage and hated (or were disappointed by, at least) Deep Red, but have you viewed Tenebre/ae? I’m thinking I might finally put down a few thousand words of reflections on that film (one in my personal pantheon, certainly). By my nonprolific standards, that’s a “February’s month project” by itself!

  4. I had the flu 😦 Bad stuff. I got a lot of stuff done then too.

    I wish I had some screencaps so you could get the fulle effect of her cowgirl-ness, sheriff star nip protectors and all!

    There are a few scenes that make Sweet Movie worth seeing and worth recommending, the chocolate scene is one of them.

    Right on both counts. I’ll try and see Tenebre. My next Argento will probably be Cat O’ Nine Tails though.

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