La Maison du pêcheur searches for the small-town roots of FLQ violence
The October Crisis of 1970 rang throughout Canada and then, as far as the country’s English-speaking regions were concerned, faded away into school textbooks. It was one of those canonically nasty chapters of the nation’s past that you needed to know about, if only to answer an exam question. It sat between nicer chapters on Quebec to do with Expo 67 and Guy Lafleur. Even to generations who grew up in the tense times of the 1980 and 1995 sovereignty referendums, it was ancient history, a faintly baffling spasm of violence.
But things were different inside Quebec. The infamous month’s political kidnappings by the separatist paramilitary FLQ, resulting in the killing of labour minister Pierre Laporte, brought troops and a state of emergency to the streets. Thousands of searches swept up hundreds of alleged FLQ suspects and fellow travellers, including artists and academics. All of this shook and fractured Quebec society in ways that continue to shape political life.
How did the lethal events of 1970 come about? According to director Alain Chartrand’s 2012 drama La Maison du pêcheur (weakly renamed Summer Crisis for English audiences), it had a lot to do with one rough tourist season in a Gaspésie seaside town in 1969. But anyone unfamiliar with the historical details will find it hard to trace the political and psychological connections it wants to make. Even those able to recognize immediately that the young male leads here are playing real-life figures who were eventually convicted of the Laporte kidnapping and murder may struggle to understand how these men turned, in the space of little more than a year, from the small-town pamphleteers that the film portrays into what it does not show: armed guerrillas capable of dumping a politician’s corpse in the trunk of an abandoned car.
La Maison du pêcheur opens with the furious police raid on a Montreal apartment in November 1970 that netted Bernard Lortie, the youngest member of the FLQ cell wanted for Laporte’s death. From there, it switches from colour to black-and-white and rewinds 14 months, to the turn in the road that led the boyish Bernard (played with smooth conviction by Mikhail Ahooja) from his distant home to this scene of chaos. We see him stand by as his father signs repossession papers on the family fishing boat. The old seafaring communities of the Gaspé are spiralling into poverty, and the bankers have come for their cut. Embittered, Bernard heads for the postcard town of Percé, where his girlfriend, Geneviève (the striking Geneviève Boivin-Roussy), works a seasonal job waiting tables.
As fate would have it, he arrives just as three young indépendantistes roll in from Montreal, their suitcases stuffed with pamphlets and books by the likes of Frantz Fanon and Pierre Vallières. Paul Rose, his brother Jacques, and their comrade Francis Simard (played by Vincent-Guillaume Otis, Benoît Langlais, and Charles-Alexandre Dubé) have arrived to fire up the political consciousness of the destitute fishermen, an early step in their mission to help liberate the Québécois people, whom they compare to the dispossessed African-Americans, Irish, and Latin-Americans rising up elsewhere in the world. They start by fixing up an old fishing shack on the shore, and host parties there in the hope of attracting locals and roving hippies to their meetings on language, class, and the sovereign Quebec nation of the future. Soon enough, Bernard is their most loyal recruit, having come to see his own father’s plight reflected in the pattern of money and bigotry condemned in Paul Rose’s sermons.
What follows is an escalating series of clashes between these self-professed nonviolent activists and the local chamber of commerce, who find raucous beach parties and lefty-nationalist rhetoric bad for business. When angry words and permit denials won’t drive the rabble-rousing “city boys” out, the burghers resort to arson, baseball bats, and firehoses. It’s all solidly scripted and strongly played, despite a middle stretch of the film that seems to have one scene after another in which a car pulls up to the shack with some new message or threat. But big questions linger.
It’s clear enough that we’re meant to be looking at a kind of microcosm of Quebec’s internal struggles over the sovereignty issue, with a group of youthful firebrands up against a business community that doesn’t want any of its boats getting rocked. La Maison du pêcheur has a certain economy and force on this level. But as far as the radicalization of the Rose brothers, Simard, and Lortie is concerned—all of whom are portrayed here as principled and clear-eyed—we’re left to assume that the violence they’ve faced will soon beget violence. Hints of this show up in Simard’s eventual pronouncements that the group needs to start hitting “higher” and “harder” if the revolution is to get anywhere. The rest, however, is up to viewers to supply when the film finally snaps back to the scene of Lortie’s arrest, and closing title cards describe their prison sentences.
Books and nighttime beach parties are one thing. Guns and daylight kidnappings are something else altogether.
La Maison du pêcheur opens the Rendez-vous Film Festival with a screening on Friday (February 7) at the Auditorium Jules-Verne.