In 2011, Monsieur Lazhar premiered in the Piazza Grande at the Locarno International Film Festival, launching Philippe Falardeau’s international career. The film would go on to win awards around the world and be nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. The experience clearly left its mark, and when Falardeau’s new film, Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre, was selected to make its world premiere in the Piazza Grande, he organized a Montreal outdoor screening for the same day.
Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre is broader than Falardeau’s previous films. A parody of a broken political system specific to the Canadian experience, it’s simple enough not to alienate those outside. Recently, Canada experienced a tumultuous election which saw a leadership change for the first time since 2006. At the time of the film’s world premiere, the Conservative government (led by Stephen Harper) was still in power, and for better or for worse, Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre removes itself from the specifics of the current situation. Not unlike Xavier Dolan’s Mommy from last year, Falardeau sets the film in a not so distant future on the brink of a fictional war. Steve Guibord (Patrick Huard) and his Haitian intern, Souverain (Irdens Exantus), suddenly find themselves at the centre of a national debate, as the politician’s vote will decide whether or not Canada goes to war.
Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre was recently selected by TIFF.Net as among the ten best Canadian films of 2015, and Vague Visages’ Justine A. Smith spoke to Philippe Falardeau during the 2105 Locarno International Film Festival about Canadian politics and his new film.
JS: This is a film about Canadian politics. Who is going to understand this, because Canadians don’t even understand our political system.
PF: There is a device in the film where you have this character who comes from Haiti, and because he’s this nerd who loves politics and talks about it through Skype, I explain to the audience some of the stuff that is happening. And I think anyone that votes once in a while, and hears politicians on tv once in a while, will be able to relate to the film in one shape or another. Unless you live in a cavern or in a big hole somewhere, it’s impossible not to know how politicians sound and how people can sometimes be looking for their own interests and not wanting to see the big picture.
JS: You spent quite a few years writing Guibord s’en va-t-en guerre. Did the changes in the Canadian government system push you to write this story?
PF: The culture of how Canada is perceived, I think, has been changed with the Conservative government, but the way politicians behave — the ones that have power and the ones who don’t — have stayed pretty much the same. This here is definitely a film about a politician who doesn’t have any power, but then suddenly has some, and he doesn’t know how to use it or what to do with it, and he’s being tempted by the “dark side.”
I didn’t want the film to be about the Conservatives. It could have been my will to make a political film, but that did not occur after the Conservatives came into power. It was there before, and it would have been there after. That’s why I zoomed out, that’s why I eliminated all references to the Quebec sovereignists against federalists. I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to do something about democracy, which is something everyone can understand. For me, it’s more interesting than just our little quarrels back home that would only have made the film local.
JS: You use comedy to overcome the complexity of politics.
PF: If you go serious and try to explain things to the audience, the film becomes academic — becomes didactic — and you don’t want that. The other resource, the other way to do it, is to internalize the conflicts inside the family; anyone can understand not agreeing with your wife or your children, and this is something that I think Quebecois went through in the past 40 years with a lot of debates and how it split up some families politically.
JS: You do create a balance, as you are not trying to take a side and say this political party is evil and another good.
PF: If the film had been a drama, I probably would have taken a side — not in terms of parties or partisanship, but about moral issues. Here, I stayed just a little back, and it allows you to laugh at everyone, including myself. I think the ones who come across the best are the aboriginals. I give them the right to block the roads like they do in the film, and they give the key to Guibord to express his opinion at the parliament at the end. I never wanted to take sides. If I am taking sides, it is to say that we have come to a level of cynicism in our country about politics, and we think it’s only the politicians fault, but it’s not. It’s probably everyone’s fault, because we are disengaged from politics because we don’t go vote anymore. We used to have to close to 80% voter turnout every election, and now it’s way down, so we have to re-engage with our system. We take democracy for granted, which our Haitian character doesn’t.
JS: In large countries like Canada, you sometimes have a conflict between the rural and the urban centres. How did this shape the film?
PF: I don’t condemn the people who think about logging in a county where most of the people get work from logging. Of course, us on the Plateau [a large and hip residential area in Montreal] think it’s easy to say “we have to stop cutting trees.” Yeah, okay. What about them, the families? Are you asking them to move? It’s not as easy as we think, and we have this superior attitude sometimes in the city. Another reason I wanted to do this outside was that, by going up north, you get this huge geography that you have to travel, and it opens the film immediately and makes it more cinematic — it makes it a road movie. A political film in Montreal would have been shot in a lot of meeting rooms, and that would have been boring.
JS: One of the film’s aspects that I loved the most was the music. What pushed you to go in that direction? It’s so unique, not only in Quebec cinema, but in general.
PF: Martin [Léon] studied with Ennio Morricone, who used to write these themes that you would immediately be able to sing. We talked about it six months prior to shooting. and I said “we need a theme.” He was telling me three years ago that Quebec Cinema doesn’t do that. I said I think we have the film to do that, so we started exploring themes, exchanging sounds. I sent him a film by Elio Petri, it’s called Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion. I love this film, and there is this theme that doesn’t apologize for being really upfront. Martin then sends me this piece of music and says “Okay, this is the song that opens the film, and now you have to create something that will go along with that.” Then I receive an email, and it’s just “Philippe, I think I’ve got it.” Then silence for about a week, and he sends me it, and that’s it.
For the first time, I had the theme before shooting which makes a huge difference, because you know for a certain scene what kind of rhythm you have to have. Even for car scenes, you know it has to move in one direction, and because it’s a film with a lot of obstacles — the main character is always stuck and stuck — you don’t want to give the impression to the audience that “the film has stopped again,” and the momentum is in the music.
This was the perfect project to be unapologetic about the music because sometimes you get criticized for being over emotional, and this is about forward momentum and the fanfare at the end, the marching band. I was scouting in Haiti — we were shooting in three days — and I saw this marching band and said “they have all the right instruments for our theme.” So, I asked Martin “can you send the partition?” We approached them, and they learned it in a small park. And we shot this conclusion for the film that I love very much.
JS: The film ends on a kind of anti-climax, because in the real world, politics rarely end on this incredible climactic moment.
PF: There is the political ending and then the human ending. For me, the human ending is in the taxi. When this guy comes to Quebec, he knows about Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the politician has no idea who he’s talking about, but he has no… there’s no racial issues between them. It’s just this young guy who is curious and who is willing. Guibord feels bad and doesn’t want to send him back to Port-au-Prince, so he keeps him as an intern — so this relationship develops. At the end, you sense that whatever happens politically, there is a friendship there. A journalist here told me “you have a very pessimistic view of life.” I am pessimistic in that political institutions can solve our problems right now, but I’m not pessimistic about human nature, and I think the film is pretty clear about that.
JS: I’m very shocked that someone called you a pessimist. I think you look at politics realistically — it’s bureaucracy that removes the human element!
PF: How can you be optimistic about bureaucracy!
JS: Politics is an image of how we want to live our lives. We use it to try and make the world a better place. People go into politics, ideally, because it’s an obvious way of making a better place. No one is really trying to make the world a worse place.
PF: You are right. That is why it would have been a very boring movie to shoot a film around a politician who was a minister or a prime minister. In my film, you get him eating pizza, drinking beer with his family, watching hockey. That was important for Patrick [Huard]. He said “I like the politics, and I like the humor, but what drives me as an actor with this particular role is humanity,” and hearing that in our first meeting, I knew I had the right guy.
We are always trying to make the world a better place, and I’m sure Harper is trying in his own way with his own frame of reference. That’s why the woman, Suzanne, says “nobody here is against peace.” We’re asking about this specific war. This is complex. Money gets into it, then where you come from — your language, your culture and how you’re being brought up. There are so many elements that you would need to address to get it right. By going around and following one family, I think you get the essentials.
JS: How important is financial success once you get public funding?
PF: I think for any director, you need either critical acclaim or box-office or both, but you don’t need all of them. If you do have important festivals, you need to have some of that — not necessarily all of it — and you can build a career solely on festivals. And in my case, I’m always a bit in between, especially since Monsieur Lazhar was a success at the box office. But with this one, of course out of responsibility, I want it to be a success at the box office, because it’s my most expensive film. And you know — going to shoot with all these extras — it takes money, and I don’t want it to be a just a festival film.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.