A stylish, finely acted film with more formalist interest than narrative drive, “The Woman Who Drinks” is an accomplished debut feature by French-Canadian helmer Bernard Emond. Emond, a veteran documentary filmmaker, focuses closely on his unhappy heroine Paulette as she spirals down into ever more destructive levels of alcoholism. Jumping back and forth in time, he subtly suggests the social and psychological factors leading up to the mess she’s in. This non-linear experiment comes at a price, however, as the repetition and accumulation of detail seen from various angles in Paulette’s memory ultimately wears the film out before its dramatic conclusion. This, coupled with its depressing “Lost Weekend” subject, will make it a difficult film for many audiences to swallow outside of festivals.
In Elise Guilbault’s intense characterization, Paulette is a testy, stubborn drunk who makes no effort to stop drinking. As an old woman, she looks back at her tragic life, her memory ranging freely over the pre- and post-war decades. The time is beautifully evoked in Andre-Line Beauparlant’s claustrophobic interiors, for Paulette is a prisoner to her addiction and never ventures outside her comfortable home.
She was a beautiful young factory worker when she caught the eye of the rich and respectable Belley (Michel Forget). Rising above poverty, showered with clothes, stock options and an apartment, Paulette is not happy playing the mistress. She dumps her benefactor for a sleazy insurance salesman with a roving eye. Frank (Luc Picard) is the love of her life, but their marriage is only briefly happy. She starts drinking heavily even before their son is born. When Frank walks out for good, her world crumbles and she plunges headlong into alcoholism.
Emond’s original screenplay has the texture and detail of a novel. Without specifically mentioning the oppressive political atmosphere in Quebec of the day, known as the “black years,” it describes the effects of a rigid society on people living outside conventions, like Paulette. One of the film’s most effective scenes shows her humiliation in front of friends at a 1950s get-together in their home, where Frank provokes a woman to strip with the promise of a mink coat.
Her sister thinks she can “redeem” herself by caring for her child, but as she slips deeper into her pain, loneliness and drink, she refuses to make any pretense at respectability, including maternal care. The effects on her young son are sad to watch.
Film is strongly characterized by the Jean-Claude Labrecque’s dark-toned camerawork rife with shadows. At times a handheld camera stumbles around the house with Paulette. Pic is structured around snatches of memory fading in and out, slipping back and forth in time, showing the good times and the bad, thoughtfully edited by Louise Cote.