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By Mariko McDonald | May 11, 2009

While the Canadian film community has been generally embarrassed with the results of the “tax shelter era,” the sad fact is that films were getting made and released. Significant amounts of time and energy are spent in Canuckville debating how to “fix” the industry. Theater quotas? New funding structures? No one seems to agree on any one solution, but everyone seems to agree that something needs to be done.

And yet, inside this crazy little country of ours is a native film industry that does booming business and manages to produce critically acclaimed films. I am of course talking about my adopted home, the province of Québec. And while I’m not going to bore you with the entire history of the province, a little historical knowledge will be necessary for the discussion of this week’s Canadian Classick, Denis Héroux’s “L’initiation.”

Canada’s only French speaking province has had a pretty storied history, including war, terrorism, and two failed referendums on whether the province should separate from the rest of the country or not. In the late 60’s and early 70’s they even created their very own subgenre of sexploitation, dubbed by Variety as “maple syrup porn.” In Québec they were referred to either as “films de fesses” (butt movies), “films de cul” (a*s movies), or “films cochons” (pig movies), and it all started with another Heroux film, 1968’s “Valérie.”

Made for under $100,000, a portion of which came from the government, “Valérie” went on to be a huge success in both Québec and France, essentially opening up the European market for Québécois films. It also created a mini-boom of locally produced sex films that ended up creating a commercially viable film industry in the province. In fact, in 2008, local productions accounted for about 10% of all films shown in Québec, compared to less than 2% for the rest of the country.

Released in January of 1970, “L’initiation” stars the young and lovely Chantal Renaud as Victoire, a young Québécoise who moves to the big city of Montréal to attend University. Before moving, she and her friends indulge in one final youthful summer on the lake, hiking, boating, and lazing around the pool. On their last night together, the friends hold a party at Nadine’s (Danielle Ouimet of “Valérie” fame) parents’ house, where it looks like Victoire might finally lose her virginity to the boyish Pierre (Gilles Chartrand). However, Pierre’s touch is a little too eager and nothing like the erotic novels she read poolside, causing Victoire to abruptly leave before getting busy. Later, she comes across the more experienced Nadine writhing in pleasure with another of their male friends and stays to watch, although her voyeurism is carefully framed more as innocent curiosity than sexual perversion.

Once in Montréal, Victoire and Nadine rent an apartment together, but Nadine’s catty free-love attitude annoys the idealistic Victoire, whose head is filled with dreams of sensual romance. And as fate would have it, her favorite French (from France) author, Gervais Messiambre (Jacques Riberolles), has just arrived at the University as a guest instructor. Bewitched by her schoolgirl admiration at an evening study group, Gervais wastes no time in pursuing the willing Victoire and they embark on a passionate affair that consists largely of eating room service and wandering around Montréal’s famed Underground City to a fabulously groovy Franco-pop soundtrack.

Meanwhile, Nadine has decided to seduce Pierre, either because she was bored, she likes a challenge, or she’s just a huge slut. This obviously strains her friendship with Victoire even further, but being the self-absorbed hippie she is it doesn’t really seem to bother her that much. When Pierre uses the key Nadine gives him to let himself into her flat, he (though not the viewer) is shocked to find her in bed with another man. Although kind of a dolt, Pierre is still a sensitive boy from the country and he tosses the key back to her, heartbroken.

Back in La-La-Land, Gervais continues to shirk all of his professorial duties so he can spend time with the nubile co-ed in his hotel room. He is also ignoring a letter from his wife, who has pretty much figured out what is going on, but loves him anyways. After a bit of soul searching on both their parts, Victoire finally decides to break things off, realizing that while it might not have been a lasting love, it was one that will mark her for the rest of her life. The film ends with her reuniting with nice-guy Pierre, and although their future together is still ambiguous, the mores of the day seem to imply that they will get back together and have many good Québécois babies.

While essentially a fluffy romance, “L’initiation” does have a few things going for it that make it of interest to people other than Québec film historians. The first, and most important, is Danielle Ouimet and her gloriously perfect breasts. She had just made a splash as the ingénue in “Valérie,” and it is actually quite a delight to watch her play the self-absorbed villain, as she makes a great foil for Renaud and her painted-on freckles. The soundtrack is also a gift to fans of cheesy 60’s pop, since no one does cheese better than the Québécois, which is something I say with genuine love in my heart. And the film serves as a wonderful snapshot of late 60’s Montréal, a time when the city and the province in general was bursting with youthful enthusiasm and potential.

And this is where the brief history lesson comes in. Prior to 1960, Québec was an extremely conservative place, essentially controlled by the Roman Catholic Church. Efforts to preserve their distinct culture had resulted in restrictive policies that made it easy for foreign (i.e., American) companies to control the province’s natural resources, meaning that the majority of working Québécois were actually living below the poverty line. However, the death of conservative premiere (kind of like a governor) Duplessis and the election of Liberal Jean Lesage ushered in a period of unparalleled development and social reform commonly referred to as “la revolution tranquille” or “quiet revolution.” Hydroelectric power was reclaimed by the provincial government. Ministries of education and health were formed, taking them away from the Catholic Church. The Montreal metro was built. A world Expo was held. Workers were given the right to form unions and strike. And in 1968, the separatist Parti Québécois political party was formed, solidifying pride in a unique culture that had been sorely lacking in the province.

And it is this youthful exuberance that elevates “L’initiation” beyond a simple skin flick. Granted, the film is probably of more interest historically than artistically or technically, but it also manages to portray the women on display as whole characters, honestly struggling with their new found freedom. Given Québec’s conservative past, the sexual revolution really hit like a tornado and the Ouimet character is obviously meant as an extreme portrait of what too much freedom can do to a girl, although interestingly she is not subject to any sort of karmic reckoning as is usually the case with these types of films. Even Victoire’s sin of bedding a married man is treated more philosophically – a youthful experiment that helps her grow, rather than destroy her.

Also worth pointing out is the language in the film. While the film was recorded without sound and the dialogue dubbed in later, a common practice in low budget film making that continues to this day, what is worth pointing out is the accents. Part of Québec’s unique identity is their particular brand of French, or “joual,” essentially a mishmash of 15th century peasant French, anglicisms and working-class colloquialisms. Given Québec’s history of feeling inferior, there has been much shame associated with their “low” way of speaking, something that was only starting to get resolved in the late 60’s with the success of Michel Tremblay’s play “Les belles-soeurs,” which was the first major work of art produced in Québec that proudly used the native accent. And yet, in an effort to make them more appealing to snobbish continental French, “maple syrup porn” films feature a more precise, less “joual” version of the Montréal accent.

Things in the province of course went a little wonky later in 1970, when a bunch of Marxist separatists started bombing things and kidnapped and killed a politician, which resulted in Prime Minister Trudeau declaring martial law, otherwise known as “The October Crisis.” Bearing this in mind, the innocent frivolity of “L’initiation” becomes that much more celebratory. And, there’s some fine boobies.

Next week, back to trash: Michael Ironside chews scenery in “Visiting Hours.”

In the 70’s and 80’s, the Canadian government introduced new tax laws in an effort to boost domestic film production, which at that point was virtually non existent. The results were, sadly, not exactly what the politicos had intended, but instead a steady stream of cheap and often tawdry exploitation pics came rushing forth from “Hollywood North”. Canadian Classicks is a look at some of the gems and turds from the so called “tax shelter period”, as well as a place to celebrate (or shame) contemporary contributors to the Canadian exploitation legacy.

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