04-08-06 Suggested by: Terry & The Pirates
* Bedroom set-to: Zac Beaulieu (Marc-André Grondin) is confronted by brother Antoine (Alex Gravel). From the film C.R.A.Z.Y. Courtesy TVA Films.
By Matthew Hays
The story behind Quebec’s box-office triumph
Perhaps the greatest thing about C.R.A.Z.Y., a film that cleaned up at the Quebec box office and is sweeping into English-Canadian theatres on a wave of critical buzz, is that it actually got made on its home turf.
When filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée first conceived this episodic coming-of-age story — about a young gay man living with four brothers and a strict, temperamental father in 1970s Montreal — he felt the only way to do it would be to translate the script into English and shoot it stateside.
“We tend to censor ourselves a bit in Quebec,” Vallée says. “We know our limitations: we don't have a lot of money for the budget. So there's not a lot of fantasy or magic. While I was writing it, I said to myself, 'Forget that, let yourself go. Write whatever you want.' And I thought that ultimately, I'd hire a translator to put the script into English and then make the film in the U.S., because they have bigger budgets there.”
The Francophone film industry rewarded Vallée for having stayed in la belle province. After opening in Quebec in June, C.R.A.Z.Y. has taken in nearly $6 million (and counting), an extremely impressive sum for a homegrown movie. (The film cost $7 million to produce.) Critics have been effusive in their praise of C.R.A.Z.Y. — in fact, the province hadn't seen this kind of enthusiasm for a Quebec production since Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, which won big at the Genie, Jutra, Cesar and Academy awards. Since receiving the Toronto – City Award for Best Canadian Feature Film at the Toronto International Film Festival in September — and recently announced as Canada’s submission in the foreign-language category at next year’s Oscars — C.R.A.Z.Y.’s profile has spread into English markets.
All eyes on Zac: four-fifths of the Beaulieu brotherhood in 1967. Courtesy TVA Films.
The title of Vallée's film is an acronym for the names of five brothers: Christian, Raymond, Antoine, Zachary and Yvan. The focus, however, is on the second youngest, Zachary, whose burgeoning homosexuality becomes a sticking point between him and his father.
Vallée — whose eight-year-old son Émile plays the young Zachary — says that as a young man, he felt alienated from his siblings and classmates. “I'm not gay, but I was very artistic and always felt different from other people,” he says. “I can really feel for people who are outsiders.”
Vallée's film is only the latest in a long tradition of Quebec screenwriters exploring relations between straight and gay brothers — the works of Robert Lepage (Le Confessionnal), Michel Tremblay (the TV series Le coeur découvert) and Michel Marc Bouchard (screenwriter for John Greyson's Lilies) come most readily to mind.
The idea came to Vallée 10 years ago, when he and his wife rented a cottage in Quebec's Eastern Townships. They spent a lot of time with a neighbour, François Boulay, who would regale them with anecdotes about growing up with four rough-and-tumble brothers. “Many of François's stories were very funny, but others were sad and troubling,” recalls Vallée, who co-wrote the script with Boulay. “This, of course, is the stuff of families, where some of the warmest things are said and done but also some of the harshest and cruellest. I told him to write it all down and we'll make a great film.”
About three months later, Vallée opened his mail to find a 100-page script full of random moments from Boulay's life. “It was all so authentic. Then François began to work on it in screenplay form.” Vallée was hot off the success of Liste noire, a 1995 French-language thriller that did very well in Quebec cinemas.
When Vallée took over as C.R.A.Z.Y.’s chief screenwriter, he injected the film with his own experiences, pulling the story's mother figure into greater focus, enhancing the ideas surrounding spirituality and even adding his favourite songs to the soundtrack.
Glamour boy: Zac (Marc-André Grondin) and his abundant coif. Courtesy TVA Films.
“The character of the mother is very much like my mother. She's very naïve in her way of believing in God. I felt I was different when I was a kid, too,” Vallée explains. “But my mother always told me that I was special and that one day I would find my gift. To do what I'm doing today does feel like a bit of a miracle — I should have been a bum, really.”
A fan of rock music as a teen, Vallée decided his central character should be a sexually confused kid who worships (who else?) David Bowie. Space Oddity didn't come cheap, however; Vallée says that getting the rights to that song — as well as ditties from Pink Floyd and Patsy Cline — added up to a formidable sum. But he felt the soundtrack was crucial to building C.R.A.Z.Y.'s atmosphere of nostalgia, so he put up more of his own money to include the songs he wanted.
“Some people asked me why so many of the songs are in English and not in French, but that's what we listened to in Quebec when we were growing up,” says Vallée. “Most of the music was in English. I wasn't trying to piss off French people, I was trying to show people what it was like for us to grow up.”
One of the film's subtexts is the waning influence of the Catholic Church in Quebec society; at one point, Zachary's father (beautifully played by Michel Côté) remarks that he's “getting sick” of the local priests. When his faith in Catholicism buckles and his relationship with his father suffers, a teenaged Zachary — a revelatory performance by Marc-André Grondin — turns to Bowie as a religious figure.
“In that scene, Space Oddity really becomes like a prayer,” says Vallée. “[Zachary]'s praying to God. He's using rebellious music to talk about the fact that he's different, but that it's okay. He's struggling with his place in the world, and Bowie speaks to him. These are spiritual rock songs.”
From left, director Jean-Marc Vallee with lead actor Grondin. Courtesy TVA Films.
Given the film's distinctly Quebec flavour, it's hard to imagine Vallée having made it anywhere else. “I thought it would have worked in another Catholic neighbourhood, perhaps in Boston. But when I called Michel Côté and he saw the script, he told me I was crazy and that I must stay in Quebec and shoot the film here.”
Though Vallée doesn't see his film as a coming-out movie (“It's really about anyone who's different,” he says), he feels Quebec society has had an easier time accepting gays.
“Since we're alone in Quebec, surrounded by English Canada and English-speaking America, we feel different in our environment,” Vallée says. “Perhaps that makes it easier for us to accept the different ones. Because we do feel different because we're speaking another language.”
And that, reports Vallée, is the main reason he spent 10 years making C.R.A.Z.Y. “I wanted to show my sons [Émile and Alex] that everyone has something to offer. I wanted to show them that acceptance of people who are different is the way to go.”
Matthew Hays is a Montreal writer.
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