Criss-Crossing the English & French Talent…


Since everyone likes a trilogy (um, they do, don’t they?) this’ll be my third and final post looking at aspects of the whole English-French dichotomy in Canadian film & TV. At least, the final one for now, until something later occurs to me — or, y’know, I’m stumped for something else to write about!

So a few things to make a point of up front.

Canada is an “officially” bilingual nation. That doesn’t mean everyone speaks two languages, but it does mean there are two sizeable language groups — Anglophones and Francophones — each making movies and TV shows in those languages…and often with limited crossover. When making the TV mini-series H2O, its star, Paul Gross (who can make some claim to being one of English-Canada’s biggest star — at least, derived from a career spent mainly in Canada, as opposed to other Canadian actors who owe most of their celebrity to Hollywood roles) remarked on the irony that he had never previously heard of his director, Charles Binamé, despite the fact that Binamé had directed some of the most commercially successful films in Canada (French-language films) and Binamé had never heard of him. Years ago, an Anglophone writer largely coined the term The Two Solitudes to define the English-French relationship in Canada. And though the solitudes are not as isolated as they were in Hugh MacLennan’s day, and there is a lot more cross cultural awareness than there was — more bilingualism on both sides, more cultural and pop cultural spillage — that anecdote about Gross and Binamé indicates there’s still hurdles to be leapt over. (I remember once reading a quote from Quebec actor Gabriel Arcand who suggested, instead of having a Genie Awards ceremony to celebrate French and English films, it might be more productive to just throw a big party where everyone in the biz could mingle and get to know each other).

Another point to make is that I’m a unilingual Anglophone so, yeah, I’m one of those people with even bigger hurdles than some when it comes to being familiar with French-Quebec culture (relying on dubbing and sub-titles to watch Quebec movies and TV shows).

And, as I mentioned last time, some of my themes — some of my rants — when reflecting on Canadian film & TV are driven by bigger, more abstract ideals than simply whether someone can make a halfway decent film or TV show.

So in that vein, today I’m commenting on why there isn’t more crossover talent in Canadian film and TV. There used to be a bit of a sense that, in English-Canada TV, there was some effort to include a French presence. Almost like how today there is usually some (token) effort to insure a cast isn’t entirely comprised of white people. From simply recurring figures (like “uncle” Raoul in The Forest Rangers) to principals (like Gilles Pelletier in RCMP and Albert Millaire in Adventures in Rainbow County) and sitcoms like Flappers and Snow Job employed mixed Francophone and Anglophone casts. While Quebec pop star, René Simard, hosted an English language variety show. Granted, looking at that list, it’s not a lot (even including a few others) but it’s arguably better than it is today. I mean, taking a look at the last few years of English-Canada TV, there was InSecurity in which one of the principals was French-Canadian…but, honestly, I think that’s about it. (Well, also the sort-lived satire, The Foundation).

Strangely, though — I think English-Canada still probably did better than French-Canada, where often Anglophones tended to only be cast as villains and bigots (but, as I mentioned earlier, my awareness of Quebec productions is limited, so maybe I just happened to watch the negative portrayals).

And if you look at Canadian movies — the story is pretty much the same. Crossover certainly isn’t unheard of, but neither is it common.

I find this ironic on a few fronts.

For one, just as simply a depiction of reality. I mean, I do not live in a particularly “French” region — no one would describe the Francophone community here as necessarily a sizeable demographic group, or a significant voting block or anything. Yet there are French-language schools and a community centre or two. Walking down the street, it’s not uncommon to hear French spoken among families you pass. And, sure, maybe some — maybe a lot — of those are tourists passing through. But whatever the reason or the origin, you do hear French — so why don’t I see that represented in Canadian movies and TV?

Utilizing — even exaggerating — a French presence in English-language productions might seem like a useful way of establishing a “Canadianess” to a Canadian production. Of crafting a sense of identity, of place. Which, as they say, is the rub. Because as I’ve often lamented, portraying a Canadian identity is often the very last thing a lot of Canadian filmmakers want to do when making so-called “Canadian” movies and TV shows. And I’m not talking about productions that are pretending they are set in the United Stares — no, I ain’t. I’m talking about even the movies and TV shows that do, ostensibly, claim they are set in Canada, but are clearly doing it as a kind of “soft” Canada. I’ve commented before that there are a lot of Canadian movies and TV shows that do admit they are Canadian…but it’s as if they don’t want to be too Canadian. They’ll admit it’s Canada…but it’s a Canada that could just as easily be mistaken for a 51st state in the United States of America. In other words, they don’t want to present a Canada that might seem too foreign, too alien, to an American audience. I’ve recently commented how such current TV series as Saving Hope, Continuum, Rookie Blue, and others though technically set in Canada, are clearly trying to be as unobtrusively, and as anonymously Canadian as possible — indeed, at this point, I’m hard pressed to say whether Saving Hope is set in Canada, or whether it’s supposed to be set in that mythical cinematic region known as Anytown, North America. The irony is, I’ve long argued Canadian movies might enjoy better success in America (and elsewhere) if they did exploit this alien-ness — if they made Canada seem more interesting and exotic to American and other viewers.

Anyway, so in this quest to be as unobtrusively Canadian as possible — having a bunch of people with French accents, let alone speaking French, might be seen as the first thing to avoid in these productions. (I’ve commented that you don’t even usually see bilingual signs in the background in scenes at federal buildings or airports…even though you would in real life).

But, in a way, I digress.

Because what I really wanted to talk about is…talent. And wondering why you don’t see more French actors in English-language productions…and vice versa. Well, okay, it wasn’t a complete digression, since my above points might give some indication of why.

And, to be fair, maybe there is no sinister agenda. Maybe it’s just schedules don’t sync up. After all, a successful, popular Quebec actor presumably isn’t exactly chomping at the bit to conquer the English-Canadian airwaves and movie houses — Hollywood, maybe, but English-Canada would be (at best!) a horizontal career move, rather than a step up. If he (or she) is successful, and gainfully employed where they are, maybe that’s all there is to it. Maybe after the success of Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Patrick Huard was offered English-language roles, but just nothing that got his creative juices percolating, or maybe the shooting schedules conflicted with things he was already committed to. And maybe that’s all there is to it. Maybe.

But I’ll admit, there have been a number of successful, popular — and, lest we forget to mention, talented — Francophone actors who I just assumed weren’t bilingual, that that’s why they’ve never appeared in English. Until, then, I did see them in something in English — or simply being interviewed in English — and I realized that, no, clearly they are fluently bilingual.

Of course, the irony is that there seems to a modern generation of French actors who speak such flawless English, when they do appear in English-productions, it is cast as Anglophones. A few decades back, Daniel Pilon was probably the most obvious example of that, but in more recent years there are quite a few, either without accents, or with such light accents it can easily be ignored in the name of artistic license. I think I read somewhere that Mylène Dinh-Robic — a regular in CTV’s The Listener — speaks French at home, implying she would probably consider herself “Francophone”, yet the lion’s share of her roles tend to be in English-language productions.

And, as I say: it takes two to tango. It needs an offer of a role in English…and the actor to accept that offer. Maybe it’s just not a big career priority to some actors…whereas others do make the effort (maybe enjoying the challenge of working in both languages).

Now as I say, a number of modern Francophone actors speak such flawless English (at least on screen, with a script), when they appear in English films you’d barely realize they weren’t Anglophones. And, of course, that opens up the job possibilities, allowing them to take on roles not specifically earmarked for Francophones (Maxim Roy as the American bureaucrat in ReGenesis, Laurence LeBoeuf as the daughter of an Anglophone couple on Durham County). At the same time, that relates to my earlier point — about the lack of a noticeable French presence. I mean, just because a role isn’t earmarked for an actor with a French accent doesn’t mean an actor with a French accent couldn’t rock the hell out of it. And part of the Canadian reality is people with French accents…so why don’t we hear that more in Canadian movies and TV shows?

At the same time, a number of Francophone actors who have established a certain significant presence in English-language films do, indeed, have noticeable accents — Lothaire Bluteau, Pascale Bussières, and others. So, maybe there is nothing more at work than happenstance.

It’s hard to draw any definite conclusions when looking at an industry comprised, essentially, of many individuals, working on various independent projects. There are always going to be exceptions to any rule — or at least, cliché. Let’s face it: I’m painting in very broad strokes here, and one can easily point to exceptions. But, as always, my main point in writing is just to get the ideas out there, to get people thinking about these things. Agreeing or disagreeing with me is less important than just that we all have something to chew over in our heads.

And before you think I’m letting the Francophone community off too easy, I’m not. Now, to be fair, as I say, I’m not as widely aware of Quebec film and TV (though I’m certainly familiar with it) and there’s no doubt that, proportionately speaking, there are more Francophones who speak English than Anglophones who speak French. But there are bilingual Anglophones who don’t seem to crop up much in Quebec films and TV shows…and when they do, it’s often to play a stereotypical Anglophone character. Indeed, as much as I’m complaining you don’t see that many Francophones in English-language productions…you see considerably more of them (and in bigger, more principal parts) than it seems to me you see Anglophones in French productions.

It all gets down to what your goal is, as a Canadian filmmaker — what you are trying to say, what you are trying to portray. Personally, I’d think embracing Canada’s bilingual nature would just make good, creative sense.

Actually, you know what I think would be wicked cool? To make a French-language film…starring entirely (or primarily) Anglophones! You know, recruit actors who are familiar to an English-language audience but who speak French and star them in a French-language film. Colm Feore, Ron Lea, Mylène Dinh-Robic just to name some…or I remember seeing Christopher Heyerdahl speaking French in a movie (with a Russian accent!), and I once saw prolific actor Kenneth Welsh in a French-language film (ironically, an English-dubbed version, with another actor’s voice coming from Welsh’s mouth!). Now whether such actors are truly bilingual, or simply learned their lines phonetically, I don’t know. And though I’ve never seen them speak French, I seem to recall reading in bios that actors like Kathleen Munroe and David Julian Hirsh are bilingual.

You see, often there’s the feeling that French films (with sub-titles) don’t play well in English-Canada, but maybe it’s because they are seen as intimidating, and featuring actors the audience doesn’t know. So maybe doing a movie like that might be a way of making the experience seem more comfortable for an Anglophone audience. And, as well, it might then open the door to English-Canada productions for Francophone viewers, by presenting actors with whom they maybe weren’t as familiar, but speaking in a language with which they are comfortable.

Now, sure, I know a lot of producers would snort derisively at my suggesting this. “We’re in the business of making money,” they’d argue, “not in doing films just because it would be a nifty keen idea.” To which one might respond: and how’s that working out for you? I mean if Canadian films are going to struggle at the box office…they might as well struggle in the name of a higher goal, eh? Besides, it might actually prove profitable — allowing an, essentially, English-language production (even if shot in French) to make in roads into the potentially lucrative Francophone market. Besides — I’m not saying make a sucky film. I’m saying you’d still have to make a good, entertaining movie — it just might be a nifty experiment to make a good, entertaining movie in French starring bilingual Anglophones and see if it caught the eye of audiences in both markets.

For that matter, maybe there could be some TV crossovers. Maybe the doctors on CTV’s Saving Hope could call in a character from the Quebec medical series, Trauma, for a consult in one episode!

But the reality is there is an enormous pool of talented performers in Quebec who are little seen outside of that province, and should be — and vice versa.

They should be, just because they’ve got the chops. They should be, because an artist’s job is partly about tying a country together, and maybe a little more crossover between the Two Solitudes would do that. They should be, because the filmmakers are the ones claiming they are making “Canadian” movies, and reflecting the “Canadian” reality…and then they seem to be deliberately avoiding a fundamental aspect of Canadian society. And they should be because, hey, that’s life. If I hear more French, and French accents, in my day-to-day life than I do watching ostensibly Canadian movies and TV shows…then I’d suggest there’s a problem.

Wouldn’t you?

Now I said this would conclude a trilogy of posts — and I’ll try and be true to that. But next time we’ll look at an off-shoot of this theme…the Allophone presence!

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