At the risk of painting with too broad a brush, Sébastien Pilote’s traditional treatment of Louis Hemon’s Maria Chapdelaine is a headline for all the typical faults of Quebecois cinema: gratuitous, dispassionate, reverent, and very well-made. Adapting a settler narrative from the turn of the 20th century, Pilote charts a path into this classroom classic that’s decidedly at odds with its logline: A young woman of marriageable age (Sara Montpetit) is visited by three suitors — woodsman François (Émile Schneider), local farmer Eutrope (Antoine Olivier Pilon), and landowner Lorenzo (Robert Naylor) — each of whom promise her a different future. Perhaps it isn’t wrong to call this a grand narrative of social change, but grand narratives of social change are not all created equal.
Pilote has no taste for melodrama, and never tries to get inside Maria’s head in the way the fantastic vignettes of The Fireflies Are Gone did. In Pilote’s adaptation, Maria hardly speaks 200 words the entire film. She is a demure, unquestioningly subservient character. She is Pure of Heart. Pilote tracks her romantic longing through unfeeling cutaways (the occasional glance, the suggestion of a breath subtly taken away), these being cutaways because most of the time here is spent chronicling the demanding clearcut of the acres around the Chapdelaine residence: the chores and wind-down at dusk, the low-lit family dinners, and the rising to do it all again. One could say that in this dedication to realism, Pilote avoids any charges of presentism. But his alternative, a hands-off distance from these colonial archetypes, is merely the other side of the coin: both approaches close off anything resembling a narrative or ideological complication. Among the classes of novel adaptations, there are those that illustrate and those that organize details according to a purpose that belongs to no book. And across nearly three hours, Pilote unfailingly illustrates the way in which, as in the visual metaphor he chooses to speak of Maria’s heart, a new card disappears into an old deck.
Published as part of Toronto International Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 2.