It turns out that high school French in Ontario’s school system was actually good for something. The syllabus staple Maria Chapdelaine gets a sweeping cinematic adaptation unlike few Canadian movies. This handsomely mounted and faultlessly faithful dramatization of Louis Hémon’s 1913 novel is one for the books. Sébastien Pilote, winner of TIFF’s Best Canadian Feature prize for The Fireflies Are Gone, creates a rare CanLit epic. It’s not that we don’t try to adapt Canadian literature. It’s more that attempts at Canadian heritage films are usually thundering bores. Just look at Passchendaele, The Song of Names, Kamouraska, or The Wars. This huge production should do Canada, and especially Quebec, proud.
Maria Chapdelaine actually marks a perfect follow-up feature to Pilote’s Fireflies. Both films are stories of young women coming into selfhood in small town Quebec. Or, in Maria’s case, extremely remote backwoods lodging. Both films see their protagonists navigate different romantic prospects and consider the necessity of leaving the homestead in which they’ve grown their roots. Léo of Fireflies is a contemporary Maria as she wonders about her future on the shores of the St. Lawrence. Maria (newcomer Sara Montpetit) lives isolated with her family up in frontier country along the Péribonka River. Instead of fireflies, the Chapdelaines have black flies aplenty at their homestead. They certainly aren’t gone.
Maria Chapdelaine and Frontier Life
The story of Maria Chapdelaine is as much a part of the province as the blackflies are. Hémon’s novel about the dutiful daughter and her hardworking family is a story of Quebecois resilience amid the hardship. The adaptation acknowledges the Indigenous survivors of the land intermittently, which are among the few shades of contemporary reading, as references to helpful Indians in the bush pop up here and there, However, Pilote’s adaptation doesn’t wade into revisionist history and is arguably better for it. Absence says enough in 2021. This story is nevertheless true to the reality of Quebecois pioneers who forged lives and created families in the so-called new world.
The Chapdelaines live deep in the woods, as the opening sequence notes with its blustery ride through the snow-filled forest. In what feels like a proud nod to Mon Oncle Antoine, the Chapdelaines’ sled carries Maria and her father (Sébastien Ricard) home from the nearby town. Maria seems warmed by the excitement of life with her community. Like her mother, Laura (Hélène Florent), Maria enjoys the comforts of social life and human contact. Her parents raised her with strong family values, though, and she thrives as the dutiful daughter at the homestead. It’s a hard life and the Chapdelaines perform tough manual labour. They raze the trees, dig up the roots, and create fields where they can grow their harvest. (A lot a trees died for this production, but not in vain.)
Pilote observes the family’s labour with care. This is an authentic portrait of salt-of-the-earth people. They’re as resilient as the figures that give Hémon’s novel such longevity.
This vision of frontier life also continues to endear itself to audiences thanks to the marriage proposals that allow Hémon and now Pilote to explore different facets of frontier life. Maria, the lone woman of eligible age in the area, draws the interest of three men. One is the Chapdelaines’ shy and awkward neighbour, Eutrope Gagnon (Antoine Olivier Pilon). He visits dutifully, but every check-in is obviously an excuse to win Maria’s affection. Life Père Chapdelaine, Eutrope is a hard worker who enjoys the freedom of owning and maintaining his land. Maria, however, finds herself tempted by the stories of Lorenzo Surprenant (Robert Naylor). Lorenzo is an extremely exotic suitor, so to speak, since he moved to the USA for work. He entrances Maria with stories about exciting life in big cities. Compared to his tales of the hustle-bustle, Eutrope’s promise to provide comfort and security just seems boring.
Then there is François Paradis (Émile Schneider). This rugged and handsome coureur des bois makes Maria blush. He offers something that Eutrope and Lorenzo can’t provide: a mix of excitement and familiarity. He regales the Chapdelaines with rousing stories of rugged living and working deep in the woods. François’ seduction forces Maria to confront her values and desires with her responsibility to her family.
Inadvertently, the three suitors make Maria Chapdelaine the ultimate game of “Fuck, Marry, Kill.” François is a force of lusty energy, Eutrope the embodiment of stability, and Lorenzo a proud boaster. (For the record, this writer’s FMK ranking obviously goes François, Eutrope, Lorenzo.) Maria’s strong sense of character lets her weigh these qualities with equal measure as she debates the rankings for herself, so to speak, while choosing her destiny.
All kidding aside, Maria Chapdelaine continues to resonate thanks to its strong female lead. Montpetit makes a striking first impression. Her performance benefits from being seen on the big screen to appreciate its subtlety. She captures Maria’s modesty and grace, but also her wisdom and bravery. One sees Montpetit summon these qualities in her character as Maria matures with the changing seasons.
It helps, too, that the ingénue has a roster of some of Quebec’s finest stars sharing the screen. Florent is arguably the heart of the film as the indefatigable Laura. She embodies the love and devotion that the suitors seek in Maria, but there’s also a selflessness to this character and performance that honours the women who made sacrificed much to build the new world. She carries a sense of humility, too, as Laura inspires her children to be proud of her work ethic and lifestyle, especially as the boastful Lorenzo Suprenant mocks the pastoral life in order to attract Maria to his city ways.
The three suitors are also perfectly cast. Each one gamely embodies the strengths and faults of the young men. Operating at different levels of bravado, they let Montpetit explore her character’s range as Maria reacts to their advances. One sees the young star come into her own just as Maria does.
Similarly, a who’s who of Quebecois talent peppers roles of all sizes. The casting is simply one stroke that illustrates the significance of Maria Chapdelaine in Quebec’s national cinema. From Martin Dubreuil as a sweaty farmhand, Gilbert Sicotte as Lorenzo’s modest grandfather, and Gabriel Arcand as a quack doctor, the cast bears generations of talent bringing this story to life.
An Exquisite Adaptation
Pilote’s production, which completed photography during the pandemic, doesn’t romanticise the frontier life. The beautiful cinematography by Michel Le Veaux, who captured sunlight so warmly in Pilote’s Le démantèlement, favours natural light and modest hues to depict life on the homestead fairly. The crispness of the chilly northern winters as well as the expansiveness of the land show what makes the Chapdelaines’ life so tough. Thematically, the film is strongly tied to Le démantèlement, which saw an aging farmer surrender his way of life for his family.
As the fifth adaptation of Maria Chapdelaine, Pilote’s version should serve as the definitive take. Gilles Carle made a respectable effort in 1983, but Quebec’s film scene has simply advanced so strongly since then. Pilote’s film is a remarkable achievement: intimate yet epic, this Maria Chapdelaine feels as fully realized as an adaptation could be.