Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Far Shore (L’Autre Rive)

Tom Thomson's The West Wind, (1917)

Tom Thomson's The Jack Pine, (1916-17)

Canadian Group of Seven at the Arts and Letters Club of Toronto in 1920

THE FAR SHORE (L’Autre Rive)       B+                  
Canada  (105 mi)  1976  d:  Joyce Wieland

And there will be poets like this!  When the eternal slavery of Women is destroyed, when she lives for herself and through herself, when man — up till now abominable — will have set her free, she will be a poet as well!  Woman will discover the unknown!  Will her world of ideas differ from ours?  She will discover strange things, unfathomable, repulsive, delightful; we will accept and understand them.
—Arthur Rimbaud in a letter to Paul Demeny, May 15, 1871

The Far Shore is ... symbolically, a story about Quebec culture overwhelmed by the brute power of English Canada.  On the level of subject matter and symbolism, this may be the most densely Canadian movie ever made.
—Robert Fulford, Globe and Mail, 1997

One of the better films at expressing what is uniquely Canadian, using a fictionalized recreation of actual events, borrowing elements from the life of Canadian painter Tom Thompson (1877 – 1917), a forerunner to a group of Canadian landscape painters known as the Group of Seven, which, when seen in an archival photograph all sitting together in the same room, resemble a group of male academics at a business conference.  Nonetheless, they were a group that resisted commercial development on the open expanse of pristine land, believing in the concept of terra nullius, that land untouched by humans had no sovereign owner and thus remained distinctly and uniquely free.  Canada is such a vast territorial nation, most of it remaining untouched and inaccessible wilderness, where there is inevitably a belief in the mystique of the open frontier, like the Wild West, where original settlers were appalled by the thought of constructing fences on the open range.  Thomson worked as a guide in Algonquin Park, a place he and other artists would visit for inspiration, but they continued to venture into unsettled and unexplored regions further north, where Thompson eventually disappeared during a canoe trip on Canoe Lake in 1917, his body discovered a week later, where the official cause of death was accidental drowning.  Theories have proliferated through the years, some suggesting that Thomson may have committed suicide over his situation with a woman that spent her summers at Canoe Lake who was pregnant and carrying his child.  Many other theories abound as well, including some that suggest he was despondent over his lack of artistic recognition, that he may have been involved in a fatal fight, or perhaps killed by poachers in the park.  What is not in dispute, however, is the distinction of this group of Canadian artists who sketched the landscape or painted the natural splendor of an unspoiled nature.  Similarly, one of the film’s strength is its painterly qualities, contrasting the dark and claustrophobic indoor existence, with each object perfectly placed, to the sunlit spaciousness of the natural world outdoors, using visual composition to emphasize mood and psychological states of mind.  The often dazzling use of color heightens the expressiveness of the setting, illuminating the often under-appreciated décor, artworks, or unexplored world of possibilities surrounding them. 

Something of a cross between D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover and Bo Widerberg’s rapturousy beautiful ELVIRA MADIGAN (1967), Wieland decides to explore this period through a feminist take, as Federal authorities granted women the right to vote in Canada in 1918, two years before the United States and two years after the women in Manitoba became the first to vote at the provincial level.  Women in Québec, however, fared much worse, as both male legislators and leaders of the Catholic Church united against women to deny them the provincial vote until 1940.  By setting the film in Québec in 1918, Wieland and co-writer Bryan Barney emphasize a customary view of women as second class citizens, where not only are their views and opinions not recognized, but society was incapable of accepting women as artists.  Nonetheless, shot on 35 mm, this is given a gorgeous natural palette, much of it set in the pure and unspoiled wilds where nature looks much as it did centuries ago, unsullied by human hands.  A pre-opening credit sequence finds Eulalie (Céline Lomez) in her sun bonnet strolling the lakeside paths of a Québec country landscape of flowers and high grasses on a particularly beautiful summer afternoon in 1919, accompanied by a young girl and Ross (Larry Benedict), who attempts to make his affections and his intentions clear, using the most romantic of all settings to ask for her hand in marriage.  Using a combination of English and subtitled French, he initially misunderstands, where he needs the child to intervene and act as the interpreter, where he is then overjoyed to discover she agrees, moving her from her native Québec into his immaculate mansion in Toronto, complete with servants at their disposal.  With circumstances resembling Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), what’s immediately clear is the suffocating atmosphere, as Ross is a wealthy engineer, the property owner of untold amount of lands, and a man used to having things his way, where a wife is little more than window dressing, a domestic fixture and household ornament that he can look at and have his way with whenever he desires.  He expects obedience and complete subservience, failing to recognize any of the unique attributes she displays.

Living the life of a bird in a cage does not sit well with Eulalie, who always dresses in ornate clothing with intricate flower designs, wearing hats adorned with feathers, a sophisticated woman who often sits at the piano and plays music she wrote, does her own embroidery and dress design, and often sings to herself, much to the displeasure of her husband who finds her habits annoying and disturbing.  She feels much more at home in the presence of a nearby neighbor, Tom McLeod (Frank Moore) in the Thompson role, as he’s an original painter, described by Eulalie as “a man who loves rocks, trees, and a bit of sky,” but he’s also worked for Ross as a guide, as he’s intimately familiar with the northern territory.  Complicating the picture is Ross’s longtime friend Cluny (Sean McCann), who was Ross’s commanding officer during the war, where the two remain devoutly loyal to one another, but Cluny is purely old-school, as he values Tom’s art only through any commercial value it can bring, seeing only the practical side of life.  This accentuates the cultural disparity between the seemingly educated and cultivated English-speaking and the more artistically inclined French-speaking Québec cultures, as the one is constantly at odds with the other.  Wieland emphasizes this through indifferent acting, where the alienated disconnect between characters creates an unworldly effect, only making their distance even more pronounced, where at times the human dimension actually feels uncomfortable to watch, balanced against the unwavering natural beauty of the world outdoors.  Wieland shows men not necessarily as they are, but as women perceive them to be, harsh and uncompromising, also petty, abusive, and unyielding, expecting women to be molded into the image of a man’s wishes, where she’s impertinent if she refuses, while hating herself even more if she complies with his wishes.  Eulalie’s ease with Tom and her obvious displeasure with her overcontrolling husband sends her husband, or more importantly Cluny into jealous rages, as both men (yes, Cluny as well) desire her sensuality, but feel she is flaunting her feelings for Tom in front of her husband, taking advantage of all that has been given to her, where she can live a life of ease and refinement.  That she should want more feels like a flagrant violation of nature to these men, whose innate desire to control women, to the point of rape and even murder, parallels their violation of nature, where in each case they haven’t the capability to comprehend the natural splendor, as all they can do in each case is destroy what stands before them. 

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