“No” marks a significant change of direction for Quebec-based writer-helmer Robert Lepage, who is known for complex plays and such stylish, weighty pics as “The Confessional.” His third feature is a surprisingly light farce that focuses most of its energies on laughs rather than Lepage’s trademark psychodrama. Pic will probably do better with local auds than either “The Confessional” or “The Polygraph,” and Alliance can expect brisk business when “No” opens across the province Sept. 25. But the film, which kicked off Montreal’s World Film Festival, will be a tougher sell outside Canada: Quebecois humor tends not to travel well, and most audiences will not be familiar with the issues and events the movie addresses.
Pic’s first hour is highly entertaining and often quite funny, with plenty of the visual flourishes that Lepage is known for. But the film, loosely adapted from Lepage’s sprawling play “The Seven Branches of the River Ota,” falters when the helmer attempts to segue from comedy to make a larger statement about Japanese culture and Quebec’s never-ending obsession with its political destiny. References in the final reel to the American atomic attack on Hiroshima and the 1980 sovereignty referendum in Quebec are awkward, and the juxtaposition doesn’t quite work.
Set in October 1970, the politically charged yarn roams back and forth between the World’s Fair in Osaka and the political storm in Quebec, where separatist terrorists kidnapped a British diplomat and a Quebec cabinet minister. Sophie (Anne-Marie Cadieux) is a young Montreal actress appearing in a dated, ultra-cliched French farce by Feydeau in the Canadian pavilion at the Osaka expo. Her b.f., Michel (Alexis Martin), is home in Montreal, sitting in a dark apartment watching the October Crisis unfold on the tube. Eventually, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau declares the War Measures Act, which suspends civil liberties in Quebec and allows the Canadian Army to patrol the streets of Montreal.
Sophie, meanwhile, is in the midst of a much more personal crisis. She has just discovered that she’s two months pregnant, and, when she calls Michel, he’s too wrapped up in politics to show much interest in her problems. Parallel tales continue, as Sophie fends off an amorous co-star (Eric Bernier), confides in a blind translator (Marie Brassard) and spends an eventful evening with a goofy official from the Canadian embassy (Richard Frechette) and his acerbic wife (Marie Gignac). Back on the home front, Michel is hatching a half-baked plan to launch his own terrorist action.
It is refreshing to see Lepage treat such a delicate political subject with irreverent humor — though it’s a safe bet English-Canadians will find the jokes a lot less funny than will French-Canadians, given their different points of view on what is arguably one of the most important events in modern Canuck history. The section set in Montreal is downright silly, which is what makes it so much fun. Particularly hilarious is a scene in which amateur revolutionaries argue over the syntax of their manifesto. Meanwhile, the Japanese part of the story begins to mirror the farce the Canadian troupe is performing, including lovers hiding in closets and doors slamming in people’s faces.
The trouble is that Lepage and co-writer Andre Morency are clearly trying to use the comedy to underline East-West cultural differences and cast a new light on Quebec’s political landscape in particular, and the pic doesn’t succeed on either front. In the last few minutes, pic’s title becomes not just a play on Japanese No theater but a reference to the No victory in the 1980 referendum, when 60% of Quebec voters cast their ballots against sovereignty for the province. The political point of the sequence is, at best, murky.
The cast is drawn mainly from thesps who have worked extensively with Lepage in theater and on film, including longtime Lepage collaborator Cadieux, who fares only so-so in the lead role. She handles the comic material with some flare but is less adept with the soul-searching aspects of the part. As the bumbling diplomat, Frechette is memorable, and Martin is appealing as the self-centered would-be terrorist.
The majority of the Quebec scenes are shot in black-and-white with subdued lighting, while the Japanese segs are almost entirely in color — explosively vibrant in the theater scenes — and seasoned d.p. Pierre Mignot shows a sure hand moving between the two. Pic overall has a somewhat claustrophobic feel due to the scarcity of exterior shots. Score by composers Michel F. Cote and Bernard Falaise highlights the cultural contrasts with a sophisticated mix of Eastern and Western sounds.