Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Giant Steps: Gilles Groulx's Le chat dans le sac (1964)

A haunting and moving account of a young couple's breakup, Le chat dans le sac (Cat in the Sack) is an extremely important Canadian film, released in 1964, from director and writer Gilles Groulx. Featuring a stunning score from legendary John Coltrane (who re-recorded a handful of his most iconic songs for the film's soundtrack) and two lovely, if quite heartbreaking, performances from Claude Godbout and Barbara Ulrich, Le chat dans le sac is a Godard inspired look at one of the most difficult periods in a person's life and the consequences that come out of it.

While Le chat dans le sac announces from the beginning that it is indeed about the ending of a relationship, it is in reality much more. Canadian critic Robert Daudelin would write of the film's political undertones that Le chat dans le sac was, "a film which really belonged to us, one in which we were happy to recognize ourselves and see ourselves close up. [It] was (and remains) the image of our most recent awakenings.” Through the character of Claude, a young journalist attempting to come to terms with the idea that he might have to compromise in order to succeed, Groulx's creates a bracing portrait of youth in the sixties, and offers a look at Quebec at a pivotal point in its existence as part of Canada.

As someone mostly unfamiliar with Canadian culture and history, I thought that I might have trouble connecting with much of Le chat dans le sac but Groulx's film is universal, and anyone who has ever lived through their early twenties questioning everything around them will immediately be taken by the film. While the frustrated Claude is the center of the film. Le chat dans le sac won't just appeal to men, as Barbara is equally compelling in her portrayal of a youth obsession with art and culture. I found myself relating to both of the characters strongly, and Coltrane's powerful score reminded me of a time in my early twenties when I discovered A Love Supreme and devoured it on a daily basis like I had found some sort of answer to a question I didn't know I was asking.

Groulx was just in his mid-thirties when he wrote and shot Le chat dans le sac so his memories of what it was like to be an artist in his early twenties would have still been particularly fresh to him. The film is such an accomplished work that I was surprised to see it was Groulx's first film but there is a certain naivety, technically and thematically, to it. While the film is perhaps not perfect, Le chat dans le sac is an honorably ambitious work for a first film in the way it mixes documentary elements, with harsh realism, and an obvious love for The French and Italian New Wave. It's a poetic and, subtly, angry work punctuated by the icy, but lovely, black and white photography of Jean-Claude Labrecque and I highly recommend it for film-lovers, or anyone who ever walked around in their early twenties with their fist clenched tightly in their pockets.

A short film at just over seventy minutes, Le chat dans le sac is one of my favorite discoveries I have made in the past year or so (and I am grateful to the kind reader here who sent me a copy). The film can be viewed here for those who speak fluent French, as this version does not offer English Subtitles.

My copy thankfully had a subtitle option and I believe that version can be found here for those interested.

1 comment:

ThatQuebecGuy said...

Great read, Jeremy! I wasn't sure if you were going to like the film as much as I do precisely because of how grounded in Canadian realities it is, but I guess I might have underestimated the universality of Gilles Groulx's film. In any case, it's very interesting to read the opinion of an “outsider”! I'm still debating with myself over which Groulx I like better (Où êtes-vous donc? and 24 heures ou plus... are fantastic – unfortunately, neither are available in English), but Le chat dans le sac is definitively the most iconic and perhaps the most relatable. Too bad Claude Godbout and Barbara Ulrich (as you might know, Groulx's wife until his death) didn't go on to star in more films. Even more unfortunate however is Groulx accident in 1980 which forced him to stop directing. His last film proved he was still very much at the top of his game, such a shame.

Also, I can't believe the NFB hasn't released the Gilles Groulx box set in English (that and a lot of other titles) like they did with Michel Brault's! So much for being a proudly bilingual governmental institution! Although, I can't criticize them too heavily as they do a lot for the preservation of our cinematic heritage. Last word on the NFB, two of Groulx's shorts are also available in English on their site ; Golden Gloves (one of the best showcase of Groulx's talent as both director and editor) and Les raquetteurs (a milestone of le cinéma direct). Highly recommended!

Sorry for the long post!