“The painting should have had a streak of colour in a sunset sky,” writes Victoria Finlay about J.M.W. Turner’s painting “Waves Breaking Against the Wind.” “But instead it shows a grey wash over a dull afternoon.” When presented with the task of restoring this painting, art historians were faced with a unique problem — “do we restore the red streak?” They had ample evidence that Turner was aware that this shade of carmine pigment would fade over the decades and perhaps that was what he intended. To restore that red streak could potentially mean destroying Turner’s painting. The question of the carmine shade represents a difficult question for humanity as our fear of fading into nothingness compels us towards self-destructive impulses. That faded red could easily be the flame of love and might represent our fear of letting go of a relationship that has long fallen apart.
Gilles Carle’s 1977 experimental fantasy, L’ange et la femme, about a murder victim falling in love with an angel, does not have a restoration on the horizon as a conflation of factors have rendered it into obscurity with just a handful of copies floating around. Before the screening at Montreal’s Cinémathèque québécoise this past week, programmer Marcel Jean explained that normally a film in this condition wouldn’t be screened, but its importance and rarity necessitated an exception. Among the occasionally crackling soundtrack and dust-bruised images, the most notable thing about the black and white movie was that it was now cast in reds. For whatever reason, this copy of a bizarre erotic fantasy was printed on color film stock instead of black and white. Clearly unrepresentative of Carle’s initial vision, there still lies a beauty in this unintended version as the red colored image lends warmth to the cold environment and intense sexual love affair.
L’ange et la femme emerges near the tail end of Quebec’s fascination with softcore eroticism on screen, which helped movies like Valérie (1969) and Deux femmes en or (1970) rise to the top of the box office. It pushes things further by adopting a rigorous experimental form replete with a Mobius strip narrative and unsimulated sexual intercourse. Of the few copies circulating, a number of them are censored, reflecting changing mores regarding the depiction of sex. The film also marks the final collaboration between Carle and his muse Carole Laure.
“Memory is the source of desire,” whispers the angel Gabriel (Lewis Furey) to Fabienne (Laure). Fabienne has no memory ever since she was brought back to life after being murdered in the snowy outskirts of Montreal. Most of the film’s action takes place in this small isolated cabin where Fabienne learns to live again. Deeply sensual, their relationship thrives briefly as they indulge in each other’s bodies. Caught in a planetary rotation that brings them close before they part again, the couple seems doomed to fall continually into the same patterns of love and hate.
Laure, evoking silent film goddess Gloria Swanson by way of her startling sexuality and downcast eyes, holds the film together. In the mostly silent film, she carries so much presence in her physicality, with her face reflecting sadness and loneliness back at the audience. While caught briefly in a happy relationship with the angel, her hunger for darkness eventually overwhelms her. Fabienne begins to hate Gabriel because she hates herself, and they’ve become too much a part of each other. While she becomes increasingly obstinate and hungry to leave the cabin, most of this desire is translated by way of performance rather than words.
L’ange et la femme might not be seen by audiences outside of a cinémathèque for years to come, and there are many films in similar situations. The Cinémathèque québécoise holds onto a little piece of history while the movie floats in purgatory, and watching the movie reveals a sincere and melancholic vision of love by one of the province’s most popular directors. A deeply affecting and personal vision, it’s an essential entry in the history of eroticism in Canadian cinema.
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.