This past summer one Quebec film dominated its province. Though the movie never reached the coveted No. 1 slot, it fared better than Bewitched, Batman Begins, The Dukes of Hazzard, Wedding Crashers and every other seasonal release save Star Wars: Episode III. It opened province-wide on May 27 on 75 screens (Quebec has 140 movie theatres) and gained steam through to Labour Day. Universally praised in the critical press, its ads now feature the headline: “More than $4.5 million at the box office”—making it the seventh-highest grossing Québécois film ever. And it hasn’t even left the province (though it did just nab the prize for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival).
The film is called C.R.A.Z.Y., and, if you live outside of Quebec, it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.
C.R.A.Z.Y. begins on Christmas Eve 1960, with the birth of Zachary Beaulieu. He arrives into what was then a typical working-class Québécois family: two parents, four sons (eventually five—the film’s title is an acronym of their names), all Catholic, all living in one small home in Montreal Nord. The temperamental patriarch of the family, brilliantly portrayed by local acting legend Michel Côté, rules over the clan like a less articulate René Lévesque: funny but severe, passionate but practical, desperately trying to protect and provide for his own and smoking all the while. Danielle Proulx plays the mother with infinite subtlety; when she is not ironing toast for her eldest child or dreaming of visiting the Holy Land, she’s skillfully nudging her husband toward compassion. As the Beaulieu family moves forward through the next two decades, it is forced to contend with the rapidly evolving nature of its surroundings. One son develops a penchant for trading dope for sexual favours and, later, shooting heroin, another for science and technology.
It is Zachary’s development, however, that takes centre stage. Told at a young age that God has given him the gift of healing people by simply thinking about them, Zachary is both blessed and cursed. He grows through many stages—a delicate temperament, Catholic superstition, angsty alienation, sexual freedom, personal independence—all of which suggest that C.R.A.Z.Y. is a coming-of-age movie. And it is, only not just for its protagonist. C.R.A.Z.Y. is the coming-of-age story of Quebec.
English Canada: See this movie. C.R.A.Z.Y. offers an opportunity to experience Quebec at ground level as it went through the most profound generational shift this country has ever seen. 1960 is both the year the film begins and the year the Quiet Revolution begins; as the political debate over English culture’s role is brewing, Zachary is dancing to “Space Oddity”; and while his identity crisis turns to self-destruction, the violence of FLQ terrorism explodes on the streets of Montreal.
The beauty of all these parallels is that the film never states them outright. They are made evident, perhaps even unintentionally, by the inclusion of tiny elements, which act as sudden, explosive reminders that massive social change is afoot outside the Beaulieu home. A politician appears for only a split second, as a character flicks past René Lévesque on TV. The only hint that a separatist movement is growing is a Parti Québécois poster pinned to a bedroom wall. There is no October Crisis or Expo67 or Olympics B-roll. As far as C.R.A.Z.Y. is concerned, Quebec is in the details.
Director and co-writer Jean-Marc Vallée made this film for CDN$7.6 million—a considerable sum for a Quebec feature, but a pittance compared to a Hollywood blockbuster (Revenge of the Sith clocks in at US$113 million). What Vallée chose to spend the money on speaks volumes for the kind of movie he envisioned. Production designer Patrice Bricault-Vermette used the smallest and cheapest elements to show the passage of time. In addition to those mentioned above, there are stubby beer bottles, vintage cigarette packs, La Belle Province licence plates and an English table-hockey game that predates the Official Languages Act. Consequently, C.R.A.Z.Y. is a very cluttered film, a move that serves the double and ironic duty of hinting at huge social change while keeping the audience focussed on the claustrophobic Beaulieu household.
Rather than expensive sets or archival footage, the majority of C.R.A.Z.Y.’s budget went into the soundtrack and special effects—something virtually unheard of for a Canadian film. “‘Space Oddity’ was nothing,” Vallée told a Montreal paper. “Bowie was really nice about it, no problem, it was affordable—it was [the Stones’s] ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ that really took a chunk out of us. Those fuckers don’t sell cheap.”
Foreigners like David Bowie, the Rolling Stones, Patsy Cline, Charles Aznavour, Jefferson Airplane and Pink Floyd form the aural backdrop to the action. Cline’s “Back in Baby’s Arms” and Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” serve the same purpose as the more affordable details, because, as songs, they also point to a larger phenomenon: the slow encroachment of outside—particularly American—culture on Quebec. English Canadians will be able to identify with this the same way they will relate to familiar aspects of a coming-of-age film. These all go toward making C.R.A.Z.Y. familiar enough to be relatable, but foreign enough to be surprising.
One striking moment that illustrates all of this takes place as the Beaulieu family attends midnight mass. Zac is a confused, hotheaded teenager who feels hemmed in by family and religion. Sitting in his pew, squeezed between his brothers, bored by priests, wet from the snow, he dreams of escape. And the audience is privy to his imagination: “Sympathy for the Devil” starts up and our misunderstood hero begins to levitate toward the church ceiling. He has a cocky smile on his face and all the parishioners look up at him with adoration—as if blasphemy wasn’t a factor, as if this were the normal run of things. It’s a prophetic and metaphorical moment since those watching the film may know that Quebec itself is also headed for a similar, secular, openness. In this moment, and many others throughout the film, we feel that there’s a revolution underway.
And that’s the key: we feel the change. We are not informed, we are not told; the situation is neither documented nor defined. C.R.A.Z.Y. eschews the normal terms and categories—anglo/franco, Catholic/Protestant, gay/straight, Canadian/Québécois—because it has no need for them. Its conflicts are sexual, mystical, familial. None are resolved, per se, but they reach a workable point that is rewarding for the characters and cathartic for the audience. By getting rid of the Hollywood imperative for tidy narratives, the filmmakers are free to show that maturity is more of an ongoing process than a destination—not unlike the way political and cultural tensions operate in the province. C.R.A.Z.Y. exists, as Quebec does, in a grey area.
It is this investment in emotion that sets C.R.A.Z.Y. apart from other Quebec films that have succeeded outside of the province. Academy-Award favourites like Denys Arcand’s Jésus de Montréal and Les invasions barbares may tackle similar identity issues, but do so in a far more cerebral fashion. Their treatment of politics and religion is laid out in explicit dialogue and direct visual commentary. Consider, for example, the scene in Les invasions barbaresin which an aged priest brings a young art expert to a church basement cluttered with tacky, old Catholic bric-à-brac—statuettes, crucifixes, pedestals. The priest asks if the items are worth anything. The art expert replies, rather predictably, that they’re not. The line between the two characters’ generations is clearly drawn, and we are made to understand their differences. C.R.A.Z.Y. takes place within that line; here, the tchotchkes are on display, but their significance is ambiguous.
C.R.A.Z.Y. also sets itself apart from Quebec movies that are aimed only at the Québécois: Camping sauvage, Québec-Montréal, Les boys (Ithrough IV), Elvis Gratton (I through XXX), etc. These are goofy flicks that are good for a cheap laugh, but that, in the end, amount to little more than regional in-jokes. Though they deal with deeper and more tragic themes, even Monica la mitraille and Aurore could be placed in this category since their subjects are based on historical events (a string of bank robberies and a child-abuse case respectively) that were explosive in their home province but ignored elsewhere. C.R.A.Z.Y. offers a glimpse of Quebec that could rival these films in authenticity, but is not so crafted to appeal to the local audience that its jokes, characters and relationships alienate other Canadians.
One could say that C.R.A.Z.Y. is accessible but this is a term that has, of late, become a euphemism for sellout. That is not the case here. The characters may be lovable, the plot may be absorbing, the aesthetic may be striking, but Vallée is no vendu—never does he sacrifice his Quebec credibility or sensibility. He’s created a film that demands a gut-level reaction—and from there, viewers can access emotional information about growing up, about family and spirituality, and about the most misunderstood province in Canada.
But even if you are not interested in deepening your understanding of Quebec, you should still see this film. Why? Because it’s damn good.
C.R.A.Z.Y. opens in theatres across English Canada in October.