The melancholia of Canada as a burgeoning nation seems mapped onto Geneviève Bujold’s face. Wide-eyed and diminutive, she had the air of a child in 1973, but a creeping sadness started to hang onto her features. Her expression became more comfortable in sorrow, and her innocence was a mask that concealed dark truths and darker tragedies. In Kamouraska, Bujold stars as a woman surviving in the 1830s through a loveless marriage and recollections of a torrid affair that led to murder. Structured around a number of flashbacks from her youth leading up to her second husband’s deathbed, the film has been adapted from a novel by Anne Hébert, whose work is being showcased at Montreal’s Cinémathèque québécoise.
For its initial release, the three-hour Kamouraska was cut an hour to appease theatre owners. The most expensive Canadian film of all time, it opened to tepid reviews and only made marginal strides at the box office. This explains some of the reason the film has mostly been forgotten, whereas Claude Jutra’s earlier film, Mon Oncle Antoine, has risen to be considered the greatest Canadian film of all time. With the privilege of perspective, why has one risen to canonical heights and the other has fallen to the wayside? Even if Kamouraska had been released unedited, the film showcases a dark and even melodramatic take on Canada’s still early history. Mon Oncle Antoine may be about facing death and the disillusionment with the father, but Kamouraska digs deeper and unveils a much darker side of the Canadian experience.
Does Kamouraska‘s violence not seem amenable with the image Canadians have of themselves? With the brutal environment mirrored in the forcefulness and cruelty of its people, the film tells a history of women at the mercy of their husband’s open hand. The landscape, amenable to secret and deplorable acts, hides away in its snow any evidence of wrongdoing, pushing people far away into darkened and closed off homes. Canada has long been a land of strangers, where politeness reigns and shameful acts dance around until they’ve been forgotten.
With a lush but ominous color palette, Kamouraska may very well be one of the most beautiful looking Canadian film ever made, but its beauty deceives. Rather than invite the audience in, Kamouraska entraps. The wallpapered walls and crystal clear winter light are familiar not just for Canadians, but anyone who lives in a Northern climate. Cinematographer Michel Brault, a great Canadian filmmaker in his own right, captures that quality of sunshine bouncing off white snow, which evokes a forbidden and threatening beauty.
As a journey of a woman living in Kamouraska in the first half of the 1800s, the film portrays the life of women as haunted and unmanageable. As Élisabeth, Bujold is not just regularly beaten and threatened by her alcoholic and melancholic first husband, but she also has no opportunity to escape. While family members seek to literally shield her from blows, they also shrug their shoulders and insist that it’s just something she should live with. When Élisabeth finally falls for another man and he rides with her to a winter ball, just the implication that she spent time alone with another man elicits whispers and rumours. Her husband, a known abuser, may be at the same event with three women hanging from him, but it’s Élisabeth’s reputation that has been put at risk.
Kamouraska may have melodramatic trappings, but it only works in the film’s favour. As a story of women, it seems right that it would subvert the tropes of what has long been considered a “woman’s genre.” The use of subjectivity, matched with a refusal to engage with outright romanticism, puts the film in conflict with history as it’s taught in schools. Refusing to shy away from Canada’s violent past, including detailings of torn apart bodies in the snow, the film shifts the themes of oppression back to the surface. While Kamouraska has been buried by time, it might be due to a revival, or a reconsideration, among Canadian film critics.
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.