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Monday November 30, 2009

He believed a film without culture was like sex without making love

Filmmaker turned down offers to work in France and Hollywood, preferring 'social fables' about Quebec

Special to The Globe and Mail

Gilles Carle was a trailblazing filmmaker who chronicled Quebec's changing identity in more than 30 art house films including Maria Chapdelaine, La Mort d'un bucheron, (Death of a Lumberjack), Le Vrai Nature de Bernadette, Les Plouffes - (the movie version of Roger Lemelin's popular TV series), and Pudding Chomeur.

His films, which won more than 29 Gemini Awards, were often infused with sexuality and dealt with several themes, especially the disappearance of innocence and Quebec's rural way of life and Montreal's multicultural character.

He once described his movies as "social fables," allegorical tales rather than "films of social protest." His audacious film, Pudding Chomeur, for example, has a scene where people decide to hold a referendum to decide whether a man perched high atop a bridge should jump. "If there is a common theme to my work, it is that I am against fanaticism," he once said. "It is better to laugh about situations where people are actually deciding the fate of their country based on the fact that there are three voices more in one camp than in another. What I am fed up most is not with people but with their attitudes. People who say things like you should vote to separate because you are poor and you are poor because you are not a separatist. That drives me crazy."

Mr. Carle, who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 15 years ago, died of pulmonary pneumonia on Saturday, a month after he stopped eating.

"He approached the complexities of filmmaking as if it was a chess game. He knew how to assemble all of the pieces that were in play to match the ideas that were going on in his head," said actor and PQ MNA Pierre Curzi, who worked with Mr. Carle in Maria Chapdelaine. "He was perspicacious and a man of great intelligence. Even his illness couldn't silence him. "

Gilles Carle grew up in Rouyn-Noranda where his father managed a dairy. When he was 16, he left for Montreal to study art so he could in his words "devote my life to painting female nudes." He studied at the École des Beaux-art, where he befriended librarian Henri Tranquille and Quebec poet, Gaston Miron, with whom he founded a small publishing house, Les Éditions de l'Hexagone.

Mr. Carle supported himself as a journalist by writing under three different names for three different magazines. He also worked as a graphic artist at Radio Canada until 1960, when he joined a fledgling experimental film unit at the National Film Board of Canada. His first documentary, Manger, was made With Louis Portugais in 1961.

Mr. Carle learned to make films on the job. At the time the NFB didn't permit feature films to be shot, so as Mr. Carle explained it, "We worked our way around the rules by cheating. We would ask the lab for too much film, until we ended up making a feature."

Mr. Carle's first feature film, La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z, which was a largely autobiographical account of his arrival in Montreal, came out four years later. He left the film board and struck out on his own, producing independent features such as Le viol d'une jeune fille douce and Red. It wasn't until Les mâles and Le vraie nature de Bernadette came out back to back in the early 1970s that he began to win worldwide attention.

Not all critics appreciated his work. When his film Fantasia opened the 1980 Cannes Film Festival - starring his then muse, Carole Laure - The Globe and Mail's Jay Scott described it as a "Cabaret style ecological musical."

Jean-Claude Labreque, another Quebec filmmaker, said Mr. Carle will be remembered as an exceptional, vibrant and loquacious storyteller. "When he began his career, he was able to talk about his next 10 projects in advance."

Mr. Carle had little interest in material success and turned down several lucrative offers to work in France and in Hollywood. "Movie making is like an airport, they are the same everywhere," he once told a reporter. "There is nothing more disgusting than a film without culture. Producers are only interested in box office receipts. It's like premature ejaculation instead of making love."

He did a French language television series on the History of Quebec. His last film, Mona McGill and her Old Sick Father, in which he appeared, was completed three years ago by Charles Binamé. A retrospective of his work, Gilles Carle ou L'Indomptable Imaginaire, was staged at the by The Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec City in 2004.

Mr. Carle was awarded the French Legion of Honour in 1995, made an officer of the Order of Canada in 1998 and in 2007 received the Order of Quebec.

He also helped finance the residence for seniors who could no longer look after themselves in St. Paul de Abottsford, which bears his name.

Gilles Carle

Gilles Carle was born in Maniwaki, Que., on July 31, 1929. He died in Granby, Que., on Nov. 28, 2009. He was 80. He was married to Suzelle Lachapelle, the mother of his three children, Sylvain, Ariane and Valérie. He leaves his companion Chloé Sainte Marie, with whom he had shared his life since 1982. A state funeral is being planned.

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