Directed by: Michel Brault.
Written by: Michel Brault.
Starring: Hélène Loiselle (Marie Boudreau), Jean Lapointe (Clermont Boudreau), Guy Provost (Dr. Jean-Marie Beauchemin), Claude Gauthier (Richard Lavoie), Louise Forestier (Claudette Dusseault).
In 1970, The FLQ, a terrorist group who wanted independence for Quebec, kidnapped two men – Quebec labor minister Pierre Laporte and British diplomat James Cross – Laporte would eventually be killed, and Cross released. The FLQ which had been gaining support through the last decade had stepped up their level of violence – and with protests and civil unrest around the province – the premier requested, and Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau agreed, to evoke the War Measures Act, which basically suspended all Civil Liberties in the Province – which also became occupied by the Army. 450 people were rounded up and held in jail for weeks on end, with no charges brought against them. No one denies that the FLQ were a violent, terrorist group that needed to be dealt with (okay, I’m sure some people deny it), but many also think the response by the Federal Government was too much.
Michel Brault’s Les Ordres – a mainstay on lists of the “greatest Canadian films of all time”, despite not being the easiest film to track down – doesn’t deal with the FLQ during its runtime – they are mentioned, briefly, in an opening title card and then forgotten about. What it does instead is concentrate of those people who were rounded up and arrested – often for no reason whatsoever, other than that someone didn’t like their politics. They were Union men, socialists, intellectuals, social workers, etc. – and yes, many of them supported an Independent Quebec. But that didn’t mean they deserved to be thrown in jail, and subjected to the humiliating behavior which they were. The film is about the abuse of power more than anything – and what it’s like when your own government sets out to humiliate you.
Brault was a filmmaker who moved back and forth among fiction and documentary films – and also worked as a cinematographer for other directors, like Claude Jutra, most famously on Mon Oncle Antoine. He shoots much of Les Ordres like you would shoot a documentary – and yet from the beginning of the film lets the audience know they are not watching one. One at a time, the actors in the film come on camera, introduce themselves, and then introduce their characters. There are a few introductory scenes to let us know who each of the characters are, and what they were doing when they were arrested, and then the film plunges into the arrests, imprisonment and cruel humiliation. One woman is arrested purely because her husband, who they were looking for, wasn’t home at the time. Others are arrested for reasons that never really become clear (the movie never really addresses where the police got the names of the people they rounded up – they just do).
Brault based on the film on interviews he did with many of the people who were arrested – he then took their stories, fictionalized them, amalgamated some characters, etc. He shot the film mostly in black and white – there are a few color sequences as well. The film is gritty and realistic. It is also, it must be said, almost completely lacking in context and rather repetitive. The first part of that is defensible to a certain extent – Brault had been trying to get the film made since 1971, and when he finally did in 1974, the events were still so fresh in the past, the movie didn’t really need context – everyone watching it would know. Watching the film now, 45 years removed from the events of October 1970, a little context would have helped. The repetition may well have been by design – to show the monotony of what was happening, and how long they were held. It doesn’t make the film much easier to sit through however.
Les Ordres is clearly an important Canadian film. It was widely praised back in 1974 – both in Canada and around the world. Brault won the Best Director Prize at Cannes in 1975 (tying with Costa-Gavras for the equally politically Special Section). It is also, along with Jutra’s Mon Oncle Antoine and Don Shebib’s Goin’ Down the Road, the only film to appear on each TIFF’s polls of the best Canadian films of all time – finishing 5th in 1984, 6th in 1993, 8th in 2004 and 10th in 2015. I have a feeling part of the slippage is due to the fact that it’s not an easy film to see – I couldn’t track down a DVD of it, but surprisingly did see it on iTunes Canada (for $1.99 no less).
But it’s also because the film has dated somewhat – its style, which may have been seen as daring in 1974, is less so now. The issue of Quebec separatism rears up every once in a while, but nowhere near to the level it did at the time. The October Crisis, while a dark chapter in Canadian history, has faded as well. A film like Les Ordres should be more widely seen – if for no other reason than to remind people of what happened. It is not a great film – but it’s an interesting artifact of its times and place.