Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Jun 17, 2021 10:18 am 
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A self-healing society closes around an illicit teen pregnancy

Les nôtres/Our Own, a French Canadian movie about an unwanted pregnancy, ends with a sort of ironic inconsequence. There was much ado. The thirteen-year-old high school sophomore Magalie (Emilie Bierre) is the daughter of a locally important man who tragically died a year ago. The mayor, Jean-Marc Ricard (Paul Doucet) has dedicated a project in the man's honor, a park, Saint Germaine. His hushed voice doing so dominates the opening scene. This same mayor is the father of Magalie's baby, which she decides to keep. There's a lot of fuss about finding out who the father is. It's never made clear why this should matter so much, exactly, but of course Mayor Ricard is very intent on the secret's not coming out, and everyone, including her classmates, is scandalized by, and disapproving of, Magalie's pregnancy. This is a repressed, constipated film, as perhaps befits the portrait of a small, closely bound community, the quiet Quebecois town of Sainte-Adeline. Everyone here wants to know secrets, or to share in hiding them. It's also a subtle, atmospheric film that shows how this society closes around and protects its own, reducing the tempests to teacups in the end.

in this hushed and atmospheric film the accomplished director, Jeanne Leblanc, doesn't carry everything off entirely successfully: there are gaps in the story and hiccups in the narrative. It's not so evident, as blurbs claim and reviews parrot, that we are seeing a "carefully maintained social varnish eventually crack" here. I see the society, but not so much the varnish. Nonetheless the atmosphere of lush greenery, high hedges, thick curtains and a tight, muted society is well conveyed. There is a photo image of Magalie seen from the back nude on a disheveled bed in a golden light that's lovely and haunting as an Italian renaissance pointing - or perhaps dp Tobie Marier-Robitaille had Ingres in mind. Emilie Bierre's stubborn silences are eloquent in her many scenes.

The comparisons that have been made with Eliza Hittman's celebrated Never Rarely Sometimes Always seem pretty wide of the mark. The difference is between the portrait of an isolated individual and the portrait of a society. Hittman's film is a straightforward, lonely, courageous, almost numbingly realistic real-time narrative of the struggle of a pregnant teenage girl in an increasingly women's-health-unfriendly America to get an abortion on her own, without local social services. Les Nôtres is an intentionally dodgy, and ambiguous film. Its young pregnant girl rejects abortion, and it's about a community. The society is a very collective one. What its attitude toward abortion is, we never learn.

Magalie faints in dance class, and a hospital checkup reveals she's pregnant past the first trimester, and didn't know it. The film is cagey with us, not revealing her special relationship with the mayor, who calls her "princess," till half an hour in. In fact there is more fuss about the unknown father than about the unwed, very underage mother. That is what her mother, the alternately inquisitorial/hysterical and loving Isabelle (Marianne Farley), is most concerned about. This is also a lot about Isabelle's drama. Magalie stonewalls with everyone for several reasons. It's the only way she can maintain some independence. But she's also trying to figure things out.

She will have nothing to do with the social services officer, Patrice (Guillaume CYr). And he's not ultimately sympathetic. A big, overweight young man, he claims he and his girlfriend had the same problem once and he "understands." But he keeps popping up all the time and seems like a detective trying to get to the identity of the dad. In particular, there is questioning of Manu (Léon Diconca Pelletier), a boy who Magalie insists is not her boyfriend, but to whom she is close. Too close, the mayor says. Manu and the younger, darker, more Latino-looking Felipe (Santiago de la Cortina) are two Mexican boys adopted by the mayor and his wife Chantal (Judith Baribeau).

The two Mexican boys' residence in the mayor's house doesn't prevent everyone from referring to them in a racist manner, and a boy at school attacks Manu and calls him a "taco." However Manu is tall and has a ponytail and looks like a posh private school boy to me. At a game at school, there is only one person of color visible in the crowd, and that is Felipe. There is nothing integrated or multi-cultural about this world. There is a lot going on - everyone is busy doing things - except maybe breathing. Sometimes this seems a stifling world.

The final sequence shows a blasé understanding, culturally French, perhaps, that all the fuss has been much ado about nothing. Nobody gets caught - yet: the cop car that comes to pick up Magalie when she's standing with the middle aged authority figure who has knocked her up, is not for him, and only there because she has been missing. She says she just wants to go home.

Jump forward in time, with Magalie self-consciously shown to be big-breasted but flat-stomached now, to a busy, cozy scene of familiar adults, notably Magalie's mother and the mayor and his wife. They're taking care of the baby boy. It's positively a crowd, a comforting mass. "Won't you stay?" asks the mayor's wife. "No thanks," says Magalie. "My friends are waiting for me." Jump to the final scene: Magalie in the back of a car next to Manu. Of course: she's young. She needs to hang out with her friends. The baby will be alright. There are lots of adults to take care of him.

Both images, the house interior and the car interior, are social scenes, cozy with supportive people. But we're left with queasy memories of Magalie and the mayor; of the movie's most uncomfortable scene, of the mayor having abortive, humiliating sex with his wife Chantal; and all the nosiness, the repression, the prejudice of this provincial world. Quebec is a province, whose French sounds stranger than the French of Africa. Montreal is somewhere else. It's not even mentioned, nor are books, or the world outside. This movie made me uncomfortable. (This could be good.)

Les nôtres/Our Own, 105 mins., debuted at the Rendez-Vous du Cinéma Québecois (RVCQ) Feb. 26, 2020, and showed also at Nashville Oct. 2020, and Raindance Nov. 2020. Virtual US release by Oscilloscope Jun. 18, 2021.

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