Stage Door Review
Pour la suite du monde
Friday, September 29, 2023
by Lorraine Côté with Nicola Boulanger, directed by Lorraine Côté
Théâtre La Bordée & La Trâlée, Théâtre La Bordée, Québec City, QC
September 19-October 14, 2023
Pierre Perrault: “Je veux capturer la vie même”
One of the most unusual and exciting theatrical performances I’ve seen this year is Pour la suite du monde, a co-production of Québécois companies Théâtre La Bordée and La Trâlée. It is an homage to the documentary Pour la suite du monde (1962), the first full-length Canadian film ever to be show at the Cannes Film Festival. Many films have been adapted as plays and musicals. In this case, simply from reading the description one might justly wonder whether a theatre piece, rather than a documentary film, is really the best way to celebrate a film. One of the actors reassures the audience that a knowledge of the film is not necessary to enjoy the play. And this is true. The theatre piece is about much more than the film and its subject matter. It really is about the attempt to capture real life in art.
Pour la suite du monde, known in English under many titles including Of Whales, the Moon and Men, documents the life of the inhabitants of the Isle-aux-Coudres in the St. Lawrence River. Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault wanted document the antique way of life that has survived on the Isle-aux-Coudres. One of the traditions was the celebration of Mi-Carême, a festive respite from privation with dancing and masks on the 20th day of Lent. Another was the island’s famous “pêche au marsouin” or beluga whale hunt that had been practiced by the inhabitants since the 1700s.
The whale hunt had been abandoned in 1924, but Perrault and Brault persuaded the inhabitants to remount a whale hunt for the film using the knowledge of older men, like Alexis Tremblay, who still remembered how the hunt had been carried out. Perrault and Brault did not wish the beluga to be killed but merely caught and arranged for it to be sent to an aquarium. (Some now would wonder whether even that was a humane decision.)
The film is still considered one of the greatest Canadian films ever made, but it does rely on an inherent paradox. While it captures the way of life of the inhabitants in 1962, its focus on the whale hunt has people who had never participated in the event attempt to recreate it. This pushes the film away from a strict documentary, which shows how things happen as they happen, into what is called “ethnofiction”, which asks people to re-enact events and, thus, to play a part as would an actor.
In paying tribute to Pour la suite du monde, adaptors Lorraine Côté and Nicola Boulanger do not specifically point out this irony. Their entire project of having their troupe of seven actors play multiple roles including the filmmakers themselves and all the people of the island necessarily underscores the fiction inherent in making the documentary and, indeed, in any documentary. In physics this is called the observer effect wherein the mere presence of an observer may affect the outcome of what is overserved. Côté has Perrault say he wants to capture reality by being in the very midst of the action, such as sitting in the boat with the whale hunters. But he does not consider how his presence may influence how the hunters enact the hunt.
By pursuing such topics the play Pour la suite du monde investigates some of the essential questions of representation in art. The production itself concerns representation but from a very different point of view. If the film attempts to capture reality by filming real people in real place, the play does just the opposite by suggesting people and places and encouraging our imagination to fill out the suggestions. Thus, the play begins with the seven cast members carrying in one at a time a miscellany of props, from toys to old radios to dresses to a spearhead and a hand saw, which we will see later used in the course of the action.
At first, the play does not have actors play roles. Instead, actors hold up coat hangers with the coat and hat of the character they are playing and use this as a kind of puppet. This gradually leads to an actor playing the head of a character, while another actor plays his arms, thus, as in the previous instance, causing a dissociation between the actor and his role. Eventually, Côté allows actors to play roles with their full body, yet the mere fact that each actor plays multiple parts continues the dissociation of actor and role – a technique which is the exact opposite of the realism that the filmmakers wish to capture.
The stage is dominated by a large screen on which scenes and stills from the film are projected. While the point of the play is nominally to celebrate the film, the screen is not solely the film’s preserve. Sometimes it is used to show pre-recorded scenes of the actors dressed as characters from the film. Sometimes it is used to show live video of fingers on a table acting as people. Sometimes it is lit from behind and is used to show the shadow play of actors and objects. Thus, what initially might seem to be an object devoted to the film is revealed to be merely another one of the props that the actors use in telling their story about the film.
Their story, as written by Lorraine Côté with Nicola Boulanger, concerns not the film itself but the making of the film and what the creators of it hoped they were accomplishing. The story includes Côté and Boulanger’s commentary on the film, its creators and its subject matter. It also includes the effect the film had after its release up to the present day.
One of the most important aspects that the play brings up with reference to the film is how it is a sign of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution, which saw the diminishment of the power of the Roman Catholic Church after the 1960 provincial election when health care and education shifted to the purview of the province from that of the Church. While the film celebrates the myths the islanders have about nature, such as the notion that the moon causes the seasons, the play suggests that the myths have survived so long because the Church does not really educate the populace especially about science.
The funniest scenes in the play all involve the Church. In an early scene when the local priest, Curé Cimon, is played by a robe on a coat hanger, the collection plate is turned upwards and outwards to become his head. A thurible is swung about which causes the parishioners to cough their way all through the service. When Curé Cimon, later played by an actor, leads a mass he mumbles incoherently, which the parishioners duly repeat. Curé Cimon also blesses the hunters with holy water just before their hunt, and when they catch the beluga, one of the hunters says they did so because the Curé blessed them.
One of the show’s most significant scenes takes place in a blacksmith’s shed. We see the scene from the film first on the screen. Then the actors play the scene out their own way in from the paused image. While a smith works on reproduced a metal spearhead used to kill whales, two characters get into an argument about when the first whale hunt happened. One thinks it must have been in 1535 when Jacques Cartier discovered and named the island. The other thinks it must have been later since the hunt was not mentioned until the 18th century. As the discussion grows more heated more of the cast appear. Some then pull out their smartphones to google the topic. Côté adds this deliberate anachronism to add information that we know that does not appear in the film.
All those on the phones discover that it was not Cartier or any settler on the island who invented the whale hunt. Rather, the Indigenous people practiced whale hunting long before Europeans appeared and the technique that the islanders use for catching whales that the islanders suppose was that of their ancestors, was really the technique the Indigenouspeople taught the settlers.
Interleaved with this discussion, an actor reads from a textbook which explains that numerous characteristics that people used to think were exclusively human – such as, intelligence, emotion, language, communication, cooperation – are also shared by whales. As the actor finishes, the smith making the spearhead also finishes and we face the modern view that hunting and killing whales is no longer considered a noble pursuit.
This is Lorraine Côté’s third adaptation of a film for the “théâtre d’objets” as she calls it after her Rashomon (2019) and Citizen Kane (2022). Her troupe works as a tight-knit ensemble all working together to use all possible theatrical means to tell their story. Individual characters do stand out. One is the gruff and crusty old Alexis Tremblay played by Nicola Boulanger, who is the one who remembers how whale hunts used to be carried out. Another is the haughty Curé Cimon played by Guillaume Pepin, who is so self-assured of his power over his flock. Pepin also plays the cameraman Michael Brault, who is so keen to record life as it is lived. His counterpart is the equally avid sound engineer Marcel Carrière, played by Lauréanne Dumoulin. Côté has Brault and Carrière point out that film and sound were recorded separately and later had to be synchronized, thus underscoring the limitations the crew had to cope with.
Amélie Laprise plays the director Pierre Perrault who is completely convinced that film, especially filming his way with a handheld camera, is the ideal way to capture reality. He says, “Je ne veux pas seulement capturer la pêche. Je veux capturer la vie même”. Laprise imbues Perrault with unbreakable idealism even as the play illustrates that there an infinite number of other ways to capture life than through film.
Nadia Girard-Eddahia, Paul Futeau De Laclos and Jocelyn Paré play a large number of other characters. All expertly shift in and out their various roles and their various means of portraying their roles with absolute ease.
The play Pour la suite du monde may be a celebration of the film of the same name, but it is primarily a celebration of theatre itself. By choosing one of the founding films of the ultra-realist Cinema Direct movement in Québécois film as its subject, Côté’s play confronts us with two completely different means of how art can “capture life”. I can’t remember that last time I saw a play with such a high concentration of theatrical invention. By the end it is hard not to think that beautiful as the film Pour la suite du monde may be, the immediacy of theatre and theatrical means that stimulate the imagination ultimately win the day over flat flickering images on a screen. I do hope that the rest of Canada has the chance to see the work of Côté and her indomitable troupe.
Photos: A scene from Pour la suite du monde; Lauréanne Dumoulin as Marcel Carrière, Lauréanne Dumoulin and two unidentifed actors; two scenes from Pour la suite du monde; Nadia Girard-Eddahia, Guillaume Pepin as Michel Brault and Nicola Boulanger. © 2023 Vincent Champoux.
For tickets visit: bordee.qc.ca.