“It’s my little Apocalypse Now,” jokes Maria Chapdelaine director Sébastien Pilote. “We built the house during January. We cut the trees and we brought glass from Germany, and built the house during very cold days. It was very hard, very stressful – maybe not my Apocalypse Now, but more like Heaven’s Gate.”
“Heaven’s Gate didn’t turn out too well, though,” I point out. “But I think this one did!”
Pilote is sipping a beer at the Shangri-La following the world premiere of his sweeping epic Maria Chapdelaine at TIFF. Like Apocalypse Now and, yes, Heaven’s Gate, Maria Chapdelaine brings a challenging novel to the screen.
“I told the audience during the Q & A that if there were already ten adaptations of the novel, I would be happy to do the eleventh Maria Chapdelaine,” says Pilote. “There are so many things to say with a classic and new material. It’s universal.”
Pilote’s take on Maria Chapdelaine, however, is only the fifth adaptation of Hémon’s novel. Anyone aspiring to make the sixth, seventh, or eleventh film version might want to pause their plans. It’s hard to imagine a director besting Pilote’s interpretation of the book. While the story and setting evoke a bygone era, the characters, themes, and moral of the story remain relevant.
The scope of the book by Louis Hémon demands an equally grand cinematic canvas. Like Francis Ford Coppola and company roughing it in the jungle during the torturous shoots of Apocalypse Now, Pilote’s film bears the results of a physically demanding production filmed in the woods of northern Quebec near Péribonka in a region that’s become so synonymous with Hémon’s novel that it’s adopted the name Maria Chapdelaine.
The film is the result of an eight-year production as Pilote began writing the screenplay during his work with 2013’s The Auction (Le démantèlement) and principle photography running through the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Filming resumed as the first major Canadian production to pick back up with protocols in place. Obviously, these are conditions that Coppola and Cimino didn’t have to navigate, but Pilote worked around the circumstances thanks to an isolated shoot and a shrewd production team that designed a COVID-friendly house where walls could move to facilitate photography.
The effort, as well as the scale of the production, speaks to the adaptation’s significance. Maria Chapdelaine is to Quebec what Little Women’s Jo March is to American literature. Hémon’s book, written in 1913 and published in over 25 languages worldwide, tells a timeless story of a headstrong Québécoise at a crossroads as she approaches the marrying age. Maria Chapdelaine, played by newcomer Sara Montpetit in Pilote’s film, finds herself pulled between her duty to her family homestead, but pulled by the romantic allure of different suitors.
Pilote sees Maria Chapdelaine’s theme of duty as one element that keeps the story relevant. “In modern society, we often think of duty as a negative,” explains the director. “We believe we are forced to do something because of external factors—parents, religion, or society—but it’s not true in philosophy. Duty means you’re forced by something inside your mind. It’s of free will.”
Casting Maria Chapdelaine
Pilote’s sentiment about Maria’s sense of duty is a compliment because she reminds him of his mother. “My mother stopped going to school very early,” explains Pilote. “Her family lived very far from the nearest village, and had no electricity. I recognize my mother in Maria because she’s very free and she’s a fighter.”
Casting the ideal Maria Chapdelaine is no easy feat. Newcomer Sara Montpetit makes an impressive debut with a quiet, restrained, and introspective performance that captures Maria’s grace, but also her inner struggle. Torn between romantic woodsman François Paradis (Émile Schneider), well-to-do ex-pat Lorenzo Suprenant (Robert Naylor), and bashful boy-next-door Eutrope Gagnon (Antoine Olivier Pilon), the film constantly calls upon Montpetit to wrestle with her character’s desires while conveying the outward composure she’s been taught.
Pilote wanted to cast an unknown actor as Maria Chapdelaine because the character is already so familiar to Quebec audiences. During casting, he says he looked for an actor with the ideal port de tête, “like how a classical dancer holds her neck and moves her body.” Montpetit’s poise comes naturally, as both the actress’s parents are tango dancers. Montpetit indeed carries Maria with great dignity. Pilote and cinematographer Michel Le Veaux lovingly capture Montpetit in shots that see Maria gazing upon her surroundings, looking into the distance and seeing her future. She models her composure from her strong-willed mother (Hélène Florent) carries herself with quiet authority.
“Maria says a lot without talking,” adds Pilote. “I needed someone who could communicate like Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. It was important that she used her eyes to show interiority.” The interior life that the adaptation affords Maria also helps keep the story relevant to contemporary audiences as she doesn’t accept her options uncritically.
François, Eutrope, and Lorenzo
When it comes to casting the three younger male actors, Pilote says he took a different approach while pairing Montpetit with some of Quebec’s biggest stars. “I wondered if it was possible to put the actors in any of the three roles,” explains Pilote. “The three guys are the same.” François, Eutrope, and Lorenzo represent different value systems, yet they embody complimentary spirits of fraternity and fidelity that leave Maria with no easy choice. One scene bleeds into the next as Maria weighs her values under the influence of the different men, especially as they relate to her family.
“In the book and the way we talk about Maria Chapdelaine, people believes there are three suitors,” observes Pilote. “For me, that’s the wrong way to read the book: it’s two suitors. Maria has to make a choice when François Paradis disappears because Paradis is not really a possibility. He’s the charmer, the guy next door.” Pilote sees Lorenzo and Eutrope embodying dual aspects of Paradis, which Maria recognizes as the two suitors vie for her attention. “Lorenzo has François’ exoticism—he has a story about everywhere,” says Pilote. “Eutrope embodies fraternity, brotherhood, and fidelity.”
These themes often arise as François regales Maria with tales about his work as a woodsman. His stories tell of encounters and brotherly bonds he developed with the Indigenous tribes in the area. Maria Chapdelaine is a portrait of settler life in Quebec, but Pilote’s adaptation lets contemporary sensibilities subtly acknowledge the presence of Indigenous lives in ways that Hémon’s novel, a product of its time, does not. Pilote says that it would have been hypocritical to romanticise the past. This including the use of language and casual racism that were—and still are—a reality.
“Art is art,” admits Pilote. “But there are things you don’t see off-screen: the other town, the other people, and everything outside the border of the forest. We don’t see it. We hear about Innu people. The novel is like that.” The drama largely contains Maria’s story within the property on which her family toils endlessly, which reflects how this life is all Maria knows.
However, Pilote inserts one haunting scene in which Maria and her father pass by some Innu travellers on the trail. It’s a disquieting moment of silence as Maria, grieving for François Paradis, recognizes the ghosts that reside in the woods. “With that scene, I think I give my commentary about the situation,” observes Pilote. “At the beginning, when Paradis and Maria are together, the priest says ‘ite missa est,’ which means ‘the mass is said’ or ‘nothing to do after.’ That’s significant. At the same time, that scene in the woods shows that maybe Maria believes she’s seeing Paradis. He dreams to be like them and he describes them like brothers. It’s metamorphosis.”
The Poetry of Life
The striking realism of Maria Chapdelaine, especially as pertains to the tireless work ethic and remote living, evokes the poetry of daily life seen in the work of Pierre Perrault and Michel Brault, notably their canonical film Pour la suite du monde. The 1962 about the revival of a traditional fishing practice in a small village along the St. Lawrence River is to Quebec cinema what Maria Chapdelaine is to literature. “They’re my masters. When I read the book Maria Chapdelaine, I said it was going to be my next project because it could give me the chance to do Perrault and Brault’s Pour la suite du monde, but with fiction and drama,” explains Pilote. “People in the little house talking about nothing, but about everything at the same time. Talking long periods while the others listening.”
As Maria Chapdelaine returns to the screen with its serene portrait of quotidian life after audiences have endured nearly two years of prolonged isolation and unrest, these moments spent in the company of others give the tale its quiet power. “It’s important for me to show the people who could be my neighbour,” observes Pilote. “People who could live beside my house.”
Maria Chapdelaine is now playing in theatres.