Islands in the Stream
Essay by Olaf Möller
His oeuvre includes just three feature films – and a dozen shorts – but with each of these works the French Canadian filmmaker Félix Dufour-Laperrière has proven himself to be one of the most extraordinary film artists of the past twenty years. At home in animation and documentary cinema (and reaching out into the spheres of performance, photography and graphic design), Dufour-Laperrière's works not so much break the boundaries of form and genre as they lovingly bend them – until something is created that is highly personal, intimate and idiosyncratic while at the same time shaped by a love of local cinema and its vast tradition of poetic and playful experimentation for the masses. Dufour-Laperrière's works are simply beguiling – sometimes in their subtle minimalism, sometimes in their blaze of colour and rich textures. Bildrausch is pleased to be able to present the first ever tribute programme to this extraordinary artist and will screen all of his feature films as well as a selection of his short works, allowing audiences to enjoy a lyrical and explosively colourful look at an oeuvre where the personal and political often mirror each other.
Among the greatest qualities of the works of Félix Dufour-Laperrière is the fact that they defy all superficial attributions, even avoid them! Feature films, documentaries, animations, avant-garde films: Dufour- Laperrière is comfortable with any kind of creative approach, and they can all be found in his oeuvre. What's more, his creativity is not limited to filmmaking: Dufour- Laperrière has a distinguished background as a photographer; later on, he also took part in installations and art books.
But in the end, it is his animations that stand out, also given the fact that this is what Dufour-Laperrière studied at the Concordia University in Montréal. But then again, the drawn Raymond Carver adaptation Ville Neuve (2018) is probably his only work that – by concentrating purely on one technique (ink on paper) – corresponds to the general idea of what animation is. Aesthetically, the lyrical negotiation of the end of a long relationship, which Dufour-Laperrière tells against the background of Québec's independence efforts, is the exception in his opus. It is the culmination of an aesthetic tendency, which first takes shape in in Dynamique de la pénombre: a dialogue-free allegorical short film, in which a couple with minimal gestures acts out the things that in the later feature film are vigourously discussed – in spite of all the hesitation, indecision and grappling for words.
It says a lot about the consistency of Dufour- Laperrière's vision that his only documentary that is more classical in its gesture is the meditative travel film Transatlantique, which with its black-and-white images, the few expressive lines and a general refusal to use any ornamentation comes closest to the animated film Ville Neuve – as long as you don't allow yourself to be confused by the difference between a drawn and a photographed image. The fact that the ship sails across 5517 km in Transatlantique while Ville Neuve concentrates on just a few kilometres at first glance reveals the subtle irony that permeates Dufour-Laperrières work. But then again, you might also notice that the cargo ship that travels from Antwerp to Montreal is just as much an island in the flow of time as the house by the sea where Ville Neuve mostly takes place. Time always flows, especially in cinema, even when everything seems to have come to a standstill.
His latest animation, Archipelago (2021), a lyrical essay on the future and history of Québec, is even more typical of Dufour-Laperrière's basic aesthetic approach given its use of collage. Short films like Encre noir sur fond d'azur or Un, deux, trois, crépuscule pointed the way there, like preliminary sketches. In addition, it is also evident that Dufour-Laperrière has a very relaxed attitude towards all questions regarding the artist's ego: even though he is credited as the sole director, he repeatedly emphasises in conversations that the animators involved were allowed to work as freely as possible. Even though there was a clear plan that defined the overall project, a basic aesthetic approach, everything beyond that was left to the animators of the individual sequences. In addition, Dufour-Laperrière assembled a group of animators whose interests and abilities covered a multitude of skills, including different ideas about what animation is and what it can express, and how. For Dufour-Laperrière, feature-length films are a bit like prisons, especially because making them takes such a long time: you build and build and have to keep paying attention to so many things all the time that you at some point become a prisoner of your own imagination and ambitions. With this in mind, he considered this more Jazz-like approach to Archipelago, where he provided the leitmotifs and gave others the space for individual improvisations. But on closer inspection, this creative approach makes perfect sense for a film about a river and its islands...! In other words: Dufour-Laperrière ultimately reflects the subject of his film in the way he makes it.
Another example of his – let's call it – poeto-political subtlety, can be found in a moment in Archipelago, which leaves the audience stunned. At a certain point in the film, the language suddenly changes for a brief moment. In principle, Archipelago is in Québecois French; and in principle, it is a dialogue between a female and a male voice during their voyage along the Saint Lawrence River and its 1000 islands – both the real and the imagined ones. But here we suddenly hear a third voice in a language that hardly anyone outside Canada will be able to identify and which is not subtitled: Innu-Aimun. The language of the Innut, the First Nations group that the colonialists called the Montagnais. We hear the voice of the poet Joséphine Bacon reciting one of her poems. For Dufour-Laperrière it would have been dishonourable to simply subtitle this recitation and thereby pretend that Innu-Aimun was on an equal footing with French, which it of course is on an ideal level, but not on a lived one – a difference that needs to be respected and made visible. And as a result, we have to wait for the closing credits to find out what Bacon said. Here, the entire poem is reproduced in both French and English, so that we can read it – and thereby experience it in the way that most people experience poetry, namely translated on the page of a book.
The history of Québec is all-important to Dufour- Laperrière. In Ville Neuve we almost forget in certain scenes that the central narrative is a love story, given how heavily the historical moment hangs over the couple: 30 October 1995, when a referendum decided on whether the province of Québec should apply for independence from the Canadian state or not. The result was surprisingly close, with less than one per cent of the voters standing in the way of self-determination. Ville Neuve tells the story of two intertwined yet opposing movements. In the days around the vote, the man and the woman grow so close again that a common future seems possible – while Québec and Anglo-Canada were never closer to breaking up. The private is not the political – but they do mirror one another. In Archipelago, these levels intertwine, even if the two main voices do not have a discussion about love. But their speech is shaped by a deep love for the Québec region and its contradictory, downright absurdly paradoxical history as a colonial power that today feels colonised by the English-speaking part of the country.
With his work, which is as coherent as it is varied in its forms and styles, Dufour-Laperrière achieves something extraordinary: he makes his home an example of how one can approach the complexities of the modern world. The fact that he at the same time beguiles the audience and conveys his ideas through beauty and sensuality makes him a unique figure in today's cinema.
An exquisite selection of original drawings will be exhibited in the foyer of the Stadtkino Basel, inviting visitors to take a look into Félix Dufour-Laperrière's laboratory (in collaboration with the Cartoonmuseum Basel).