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Friday November 1, 2013

An equal blend of emotion and technique

He directed 'essential films of Quebec cinema,' tackling topics such as tradition and diversity

Special to The Globe and Mail

Michel Brault was a 19-year-old scoutmaster in the summer of 1947 when a 17-year-old by the name of Claude Jutra showed up with a Bolex camera at the camp where he was working. As a lark, the two teenagers made a short amateur film, Le dément du lac Jean-Jeunes. This would mark the beginning of a collaboration that resulted in some of the best films ever made in this country.

After Mr. Jutra's death in 1986, Mr. Brault continued to direct documentaries and feature films that chronicled Quebec's social and political history. His name appears on more than 200 film credits, four of which consistently show up on any Top 10 list of the best Canadian films.

Mr. Brault's crystalline camerawork coloured the mood of Mon oncle Antoine, Mr. Jutra's classic, as well as Les bons débarras. Mr. Brault was also the only Canadian to pick up a best director award at the Cannes Film Festival for Les ordres, his 1974 seminal study of the effects of the War Measures Act in Canada. The New Yorker described it as "an angry, beautiful film," and compared his work to that of Costa-Gavras. Mr. Brault also directed the equally acclaimed Pour la suite du monde for the National Film Board of Canada, a film about whaling on the St. Lawrence River.

Over his career, Mr. Brault collected six Genies and 13 Gémeaux, and was recognized with the Governor General's Award. He was 85 when he died of a heart attack on Sept. 21 near Huntsville, Ont., where he was to be honoured with a lifetime achievement award by the Film North festival. He leaves his wife, Marie Marthe Tardif, and their three children.

"He was a poet with the camera, and he made a serious actor out of me," said former senator Jean Lapointe, who worked with Mr. Brault on Les ordres. "Even though I was a Liberal, I was against the War Measures Act. When he cast me as Clermont Boudreau, one of the victims, he told me a bit about the character, then he asked me to take 200 steps. Based on the troubled way I walked and carried myself, he gave me the part. He was a very gentle man, soft-spoken, very easy to work with."

Mr. Brault, a doctor's son, was born in Montreal on June 25, 1928, and educated at Collège Stanislas. It was at Séminaire Saint-Jean where he learned the basics of photography and discovered "how to chase light" with a camera.

His collaboration with Mr. Jutra reinforced his ambition to be a filmmaker, and he always credited Mr. Jutra as his mentor. "I learned everything from Claude," he once told a reporter. "Claude was the real genius, I only tagged along."

To satisfy his parents, Mr. Brault enrolled at Université de Montréal, but dropped out after a year when he was hired as a camera assistant at the National Film Board. He experimented with a hand-held camera and, during the dawn of television, worked with Radio-Canada. He went to France to study cinéma vérité. In 1958, Mr. Brault made his directorial debut with Les raquetteurs, an NFB documentary on a snowshoe competition.

In 1965, he started his own production company, Nanouk Films. For Mr. Brault, making films wasn't just an intellectual exercise, but a physical one. "You have to be in good shape, in good health. It is strenuous work. I have always believed that to make a good film, there must be balance between technique and content," he once said. "Half of your brain must be technical, while the other half has to be emotional."

He directed Entre la mer et l'eau douce, an allegorical loss-of-innocence drama about a singer who leaves his small Quebec village to find his fame and fortune in the big city. Mr. Brault was also the cinematographer on Mr. Jutra's classic Kamouraska.

He later explored Quebec's changing demographics and growing ethnic diversity in two films. Les noces de papier, which is about an arranged marriage, starred his protégé, Geneviève Bujold, whom he first cast in the 1960s.

"He allowed me to be free in front of the camera," she said in an interview from her home in Malibu. "Michel saw beauty in everything and in everyone. He could capture your inner beauty with his camera. For me, he was like a sculptor who could see the form and reveal the soul hidden in a block of stone. Our relationship was based on my tremendous confidence in him."

Mr. Brault's next feature, Shabbat Shalom, dealt with the story of a Quebecker falling in love with a Hasidic Jewish woman.

Mr. Brault was among the first to experiment with 70 mm film with his work for Expo 86 in Vancouver, Un monde en liberté. Early in the 1990s, he was among the first filmmakers to embrace digital technology.

His last major film, Quand je serai parti ... vous vivrez encore, shot years ago, was a controversial historical epic about the aftermath of the 1837 rebellion.

"He is ambidextrous, both eye and brain, recorder and creator," André Loiselle wrote in Cinema as History: Michel Brault and Modern Quebec, an appreciation for the Toronto International Film Festival.

"His distinctive legacy is that he not only directed a number of the essential films of Quebec cinema, but he was its most talented cinematographer, working on films that constitute the canon of the province's productions. "

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