Montréal on film

Montréal on film

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By AnneLise Sorensen
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Montréal has played a starring role in so many films that it could practically apply for its own actor’s equity card. From the leafy banks of the St Lawrence River to gritty street corners with faded strip bars, Montréal can seem like a custom-built movie set. Here AnneLise Sorensen, co-author of The Rough Guide to Canada, picks some of her favourite Montréal movies.

1) Jésus de Montréal (1989, Denys Arcand)

What might happen if “the spirit of Jesus were to walk among us in these timid and materialistic times”? That’s how critic Roger Ebert summed up this “original and uncompromising” film by Québécois director Denys Arcand. Fiction seeps into reality (and vice versa) as a group of young actors stage a modern take on the The Passion Play at St Joseph’s Oratory, with the androgynous Daniel (Lothaire Bluteau) in the role of Jesus. As the movie unfolds, the actors’ real lives begin to parallel the play – but very subtly, which is the power of the film. Arcand grapples with grand themes – the corruption of power, organised religion, hypocrisy – but again, he does so subtly, in a way that lingers in the mind long after the film has ended. The movie was nominated for the 1989 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and has twice (in 1993 and 2004) been placed on the Toronto International Film Festival list of Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time.

2) Léolo (1992, Jean-Claude Lauzon)

As his family becomes increasingly unhinged, a young boy escapes into his own elaborate fantasy world. Leo Lauzon (Maxime Collin) is growing up in a grim Montréal tenement, where instead of playing with friends, he’s trying to escape death at the bony hands of his perverted grandfather, among other challenges. To cope, he spins an alternate existence, where he steps into the role of Sicilian immigrant Léolo Lozone, whose mother was impregnated by a tomato (yes, really). The film, beautifully directed by Québécois Jean-Claude Lauson, is by turns brutal and macabre, magical and yearning, resting on the exultant premise that no matter what darkness surrounds us, the mind is ours alone.

3) Montréal Main (1974, Frank Vitale)

“Brilliant yet neglected” said the reviewers of this French-Canadian film – and they’re right. Set amid the wafts of marijuana and incense on the bohemian Montréal Main, the film boldly goes where few have gone before: a grown man’s love for a pre-teen boy. But, as salacious as the film could be, director and star Frank Vitale instead pulls respectfully back, treating this taboo relationship tenderly, as he does the rest of the 1970s motley crew of junkies, misfits and perpetual wanderers. But, it’s 1970s Montréal that’s as rakishly fascinating as the shaggy-haired characters, from glimpses of the famous Schwartz’s Jewish deli to the seedy Montréal Main itself, which has been described as the Sunset Strip, pre-Disneyfied Times Square, San Francisco’s Tenderloin and London’s Soho all rolled into one.

4) The Luck of Ginger Coffey (1964, Irvin Kershner)

The dream for a better life remains just that – a dream – in this poignant film based on the novel by Irish-Canadian author Brian Moore. A down-on-his-luck Irish immigrant, Ginger Coffey (Robert Shaw), moves to Montréal with his wife Vera (May Ure) and teenage daughter. The ginger-haired Coffey takes a job at a laundry and as proofreader at a newspaper. Even so, his paycheck can’t sustain the family, and Coffey’s beloved Vera leaves him. Things go from bad to worse, but in the end, while success remains just beyond reach, Vera doesn’t. She returns, proving that love may not conquer all, but it does make life sweeter.

5) The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz (1974, Ted Kotcheff)

This film may have been brushed off by Cannes when it was submitted as the official Canadian entry in 1974, but the 2013 Cannes Film Festival gave the movie its due, honoring it as a Cannes Classic. The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, based on the novel by Montréal author Mordecai Richler, takes place in the 1940s in Montréal’s rue St-Urbain, often called the Jewish ghetto. Keep an eye out for local icons like Wilensky’s Light Lunch. The film follows the cocky Duddy, played by Richard Dreyfus, just before his famous role in Jaws. Born into a working-class Jewish family, Duddy seeks fame, fortune and, above all, land. Because, as his grandfather tells him, without your own land, you are nobody. Of course, the road to prosperity is often riddled with potholes. Duddy is a consummate hustler, but he discovers that achieving great success sometimes means alienating those who love him most.

6) The Red Violin (François Girard, 1999)

Love, inspiration, joy, betrayal, heartbreak, death, rebellion – a red violin plays an integral part in the lives of many as it travels across five countries, over a period of 300 years, in this lyrical film directed by Québécois director Francois Girard, and starring an international cast, including Samuel L. Jackson, Jason Flemyn and Monique Mercure. The violin is built in Italy, where its maker paints it in a red varnish mixed with the blood of his wife, who has died in childbirth. After this fateful beginning, the violin continues on its journey, through Austria, England and China, ending up at a Montréal auction house, where it’s bid upon to bring music into someone’s life anew.

7) Wait Until Dark (1967, Terence Young)

A blind heroine (Audrey Hepburn), a heroin-laced doll, severed telephone lines, and fight scenes involving smashed lightbulbs and a large kitchen knife: it’s all here in this old-timey Hollywood thriller by Terence Young. The film opens in a Montréal apartment, and location scenes throughout were filmed in Montréal and New York’s Greenwich Village.

8) J’ai tué ma mère (I Killed My Mother; Xavier Dolan, 2009)

Easily one of the most shocking titles of 2009, J’ai tué ma mère proved to be more – much more – than its sensationalist first impression. The director also turned about to be younger – much younger – than most expected. Dolan (born in 1989) is said to have written the autobiographical script when he was 16, and the film debuted at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, winning him a string of awards – and standing ovations. The film explores the bond between mother and son – a deep bond that swerves between love and hate, which ultimately seem to emanate from the same place.

9) The Score (2001, Frank Oz)

Hollywood directors love Montréal, but often as a stand-in rather than the real thing (see number 10, below.) This De Niro thriller, however, was both shot and set entirely in Montréal. The film tells the tale of aging thief Nick Wells (De Niro) who owns a jazz club in Montréal and is poised for retirement. Then along comes Max (Marlon Brando), who persuades him to do one last heist – the Montréal Customs House – with the help of a brash insider (Edward Norton). Cue the suspense soundtrack.

10) Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator and many more

And finally, there’s Montréal’s role as a destination double. In a large variety of films, Montréal has stood in for other cities and countries, including Munich, Nevada, Las Vegas, Beirut and, of course, France. A key reason for this is the city’s age – over 400 years old – and its remarkably well-preserved European-style architecture. Several Leonardo DiCaprio flicks have filmed in the region, including The Aviator and Catch Me if You Can, where Montréal and Québec City were France and Montrichard respectively.

What are your own favourite films set in Montréal?

Discover more of Montréal and check out the Rough Guide to Canada >