La vie heureuse de Léopold Z (1965)

12:48 PM

In 1965, the National Film Board commissioned a film from filmmaker Gilles Carle, which was to be a documentary film profile of a snowplow operator in Montréal. What the film would evolve to be is a feature-length film that blends the mediums of documentary and fiction to create a whimsical, and gorgeously simple portrait of an average Montrealer. On its website, the ONF uses this description to explain the film: “Les mésaventures de Léo, véritable débonnaire, la veille de Noël, depuis le petit jour jusqu'à la messe de minuit. Une tempête de neige s'abat sur Montréal et Léo, préposé au déneigement, est pris dans la tempête: les obligations professionnelles ou la famille?” An all-encompassing description. However, this is so much more to discover under the heaps of snow and ice that litter this movie. The cute, whimsical vibe distracts from a more startling movement under its surface. 

A film that opens on the intense blinding white of an unforgiving winter may not have the appearance of anything promising. If anything, the kind of fervent snow and ice that dominates the scene is chilling and in a word, desolate. However, La vie heureuse de Léopold Z has the very word “heureuse” in its title, meaning happy, which invites us into this world with a hint of promise. In this “heureuse” little world of Léopold Z, we learn that the titular character is 32-year old snowplow operator named Léopold. Léo is not overly ambitious, and in fact might be regarded as a kind of wandering dreamer. He plays hooky from work on Christmas eve, managing to accomplish buying christmas presents for his wife and son, collecting his cousin from the station, and making it to Midnight Mass where his son is singing, all the while plowing the streets of his beloved Montréal. it’s a wholesome, quiet little story and not overly ambitious, at least not on first glance. The most important thing to consider when watching the film is its historical placement in Canadian history, and the movements that were in motion at the films conception.

The story takes place the mid-1960s, years after the start of the Quiet Revolution, which sought to pry free the grip that the Catholic Church had on public affairs, such as health care and education. Essentially, it was a step towards the creation of a more secular state of Québec. But what was happening on a cinematic level at this turning point in Québec history is what can only be described as a cinematic revolution, a step away from the overwhelming themes of piousness and religious well-being, and a step towards showing the real Québec to the real Québecer. It’s a noble mission, with the noblest of heroes, taking the form of your average citizen, with average dreams. But the manner in which the subject is approached is anything but average. The fantastic blend of documentary style filming as well as traditional narrative cinema evokes hints of the French New Wave. However, with its decidedly less control on censorship, the French New Wave didn’t come to France as a revolution, like these Québecois films did. In a way, the kind of approach and attitude towards cinema during those days of the Quiet Revolution predate the much more universally recognized New Hollywood era of Cinema in the United States which started around 1967. In both instances, a set system and approach to film has been solidified in filmmaking culture — a pious, more centralized religious outlook in Québec cinema, and an established studio system in the United States, also fervent in its censorship in the days of old Hollywood. 

The most interesting aspect of La vie heureuse de Léopold Z, is its refusal to bow to the traditions of the religious Québec, but at the same time, maintain the cultural relationship that Québec has with the Church. The film takes place on Christmas Eve, which in itself is a decision deeply rooted in religion — being of course that Christmas is traditionally a religious holiday. The second aspect being that the entire goal of the film is for Léo to make it to Church in time for midnight mass, and in doing so, see his son perform in the Church choir. So essentially, we have a film that plants itself directly in the path of a religious narrative, yet has a refusal to adhere to a strict story of Christian morality. I’m reminded of films like Jesus of Montréal (1989) and in some ways, C’est pas moi je le jure (2009), which contains religious themes in conjunction with a Montréal setting, but which only use these as themes to further the plot, and not as a religious shaming devices, like much of the films that existed within Québec prior to the Quiet Revolution. In La vie hereuse de Léopold Z, we’re exposed to religion as a setting, which supports the narrative, but doesn’t hinder it, unlike pre-revolution French-Canadian film. The Catholic undertones of family and Christmas and morality only seek to relay a message of goodness and warmth and not moral shame. In a way, La vie heureuse de Léopold Z has a symbiotic relationship with religion, which is fantastically in tune with Québec culture, while at once battling against the oppression that existed so vocally within cinematic language in Québec.

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