The story of Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things (from now on just Two Soft Things) is that Mark Kenneth Woods and Michael Yerxa went north to film a documentary about what Pride Festival looks like in Nunavut, and ended up with a movie about colonialism, Christianity, and shame. As it turns out, sexuality is complex. You can’t talk about Inuit sexuality without talking about Christianity, and you can’t talk about Christianity without talking about colonialism, and talking about colonialism means exploring Nunavut’s problems (did you know residential schools were implemented in the North? did you know we implemented Stalinist level propaganda?) and exploring the symptoms of these problems (did you know the Inuit are thirteen times more likely to commit suicide? did you know only 30% graduate high school?). Woods and Yerxa have done a wonderful thing; instead of avoiding this complexity, they’ve captured it. Their documentary asks: Where did these problems come from? How do we fix them? And how do we create the inclusive, socially tolerant spaces the Inuit want?
To start answering these questions, Two Soft Things begins with an exposition of what’s happened to Nunavut in the last sixty years. A sexual health nurse, a political leader, a filmmaker, and a PhD candidate tell the story (one of them rather apologetically explains that so few people know about Nunavut’s history, a kind of crash history 101 is necessary): Prior to World War II, the government had few reasons to pay attention to the North. They were, for the most part, two closed systems un-linked—no roads, no gas stations, no phones—leaving two very different ways of living on other side of the North/South border. The way this changed was classically (and tragically) colonial: First, Nunavut became of strategic value. Next, the Southerners moved in. We relocated the Inuit to Iqaluit. Then we started to recast them in our own image, which at that time was something like early repressed suburbanites. Once they were effectively relocated, we ensured their immobility—we shot more than fifteen thousand of their sled dogs, their way out.
All of history hurts. But this history is particularly painful for a number of reasons. It’s painful for those who already knew it, because it’s recounted by those who are feeling its effects; and for those who hadn’t heard about it, like me, it hurts in an oddly nationalistic way. If the America’s public myth is/was freedom, ours is/was peace, and it is/was comforting to believe in the nice stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. Conversely, it’s painful to be told they’re not true—maybe more painful than to not have believed them in the first place. If I could unlearn the disillusionment of Santa Claus and Love and Canada’s supposed peacefulness, I would.
But learning about history is also extremely important. Of course, this is something we’re reminded of so often, it’s easier to remember that it’s important instead of why it's important. We know it must have to do with quotes like “forget the past and you’ll repeat the future”, and “the most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history”, but specifics become fuzzy. Two Soft Things (implicitly) offers a few theories. One is that knowing your own history and repeating it is empowering because it allows you to make sense of who you are, how you became who you are, and where you’re going. To give a practical example, then, is when Inuit are met with the inane comments you tend to see on message boards—repudiations that the Inuit over-rely on government support, that they are lazy, etc—they can respond with a diagnosis of their past that explains why these claims are wrong, and in what way the claims are wrong. To mention one more important utility: sharing history and narratives about your history is important because it prevents others from projecting their superficial impressions. If Canada knew more about itself and its history and was more promiscuous about it, maybe fewer people would assume we still live in igloos and say ‘eh’ a lot.
Besides the complexity of Nunavut history, the documentary also explains the complexity of living in and documenting post-colonial Nunavut. And consider, for a minute, some of these complexities: a) Consider the fact that Southerners, who performed a systematic, cultural clear-cut less than sixty years ago, are now offering (or are they just seeming to offer?) their support. b) Consider that the silenced Inuit voices we are finally hearing from are being mediated and edited by two white Southern documentarians. c) Consider that your own thoughts have been so deeply infiltrated and filtrated by colonial manipulation, it’s genuinely impossible to understand whether your thoughts are your own or not. The implicit effect must be confusion and paranoia. The explicit effect is the type of confused (but understandable, to some extent) response some Inuit have to homosexuality, which is believed to be wrong because it’s been brought up by the Southern White Man, but is judged to be wrong by Inuit Christians, which were also brought up by the Southern White Man. Add to all of this the negative associations between male rape by Christian priests in residential schools and these two concepts, Christianity and homosexuality. They become so twisted together in a dark gordian knot that it’s no wonder the responses are so strange and miscalculated. This is a lightning rod of traumatic associations.
But the movie doesn’t brood on Nunavut’s tragic aspects too long. It’s not too punitive, or vengeful, or angry. It’s not a Michael Moore documentary. To be vengeful is to look backwards, and the documentary is much more concerned with the future. So, the movie ends by locating recent Inuit success in order to start crafting a new narrative of Inuit people who are starting to change their community for the better. It addresses the very progressive Pride festivals the community started in 2006 and rebooted last year. It speaks about the initiatives taken in high school which range from pronoun jars (like swear jars but with misapplied pronouns) to LGBTQ fairs. And it covers some of the new films being made by Inuit people. Altogether, the movie beautifully captures a community midway through the process of trauma. They’ve acknowledged their past, reconciled with it, and are starting to find a new way forward.
At the start of Summertime (La Belle Saison), directed by Catherine Corsini, Delphine, a young woman, is working the farm with her family, and everything, for the most part, is good. Delphine would surely say so. She has a love interest, she loves her family, and is comfortable enough. She is in her element. You get the sense that she knows every corner of the farm and could find the quickest way between them—this is her turf. But “you can’t be alone forever,” her father says, “loneliness is a terrible thing.” She believes him. And when her (secret) lesbian partner marries a man, she starts to believe him even more. So, she moves to Paris.
This is a great start. By the time the introduction is over, we know the movie’s about love, and family, and duty, and obligation; and already there’s a set-up inflated with dramatic tension. Still (I can’t help it), with every movie I watch I mentally tap the pause button and ask myself the question: is the rest of the movie worth watching? Isn’t there something better? Is this a bad investment of my time? I’m glad I didn’t: La Belle Saison is fully, electrically alive. Here’s why:
Reason #1: La Belle Saison is worth watching because it’s a movie about love that makes love new. It’s easy to forget how rare this is, especially given movies about love are so popular (there are 7 sub-genres of romance, one so popular it has its own abbreviation and top 100 lists: RomComs). In the Mood for Love felt completely new and completely immersive. So did Blue is the Warmest Colour. But to google top romantic movies is to track through hundreds of movies so similar it’s hard to know which derived what from what. And while La Belle Saison does share some of the same formula—it is, ultimately, about the pain of love not working out—it’s about so much more than that. It’s about how quick-moving and endorphin-inducing love can be (with genius cinematography; you can feel Delphine’s love for her female partner, Carole); and how frustrating and exhausting and fun it can be; how it’s always exciting to fall in love but it’s usually much easier to just give it up--its ability to overwhelm. Most absorbing, for me, and also most abstract: how choosing (or not choosing) to love and be with someone is also about choosing between different ways of being—Delphine can choose to be the identity she’s made for herself at the farm: she can be shy, calm, fulfilled Delphine, or she can be what she’s started to bud into with Carole: fun, confident, daring Delphine. Watching her choose (and not choose) is like watching someone be pulled in three different directions very slowly but continuously—it hurts.
Reason #2: There’s an interlude halfway into the movie, where Delphine and Carole and a larger group of women attempt to break a gay man out of an institution where he’s being lobotomized. This scene, apart from being heartbreaking, sets the stakes. Now we understand what it means to be gay in Paris in the 1970s.
Reason #3: La Belle Saison is worth watching for it’s character development. Delphine is a character so recognizable but so unique she feels like she could walk out of the screen and you wouldn’t be surprised. Part of this has to do with the little details which make her entirely lucid, like when she hops out of her tractor to lovingly smell a small handful of wheat. More than that, though, it’s the way we get such a perfect read on who she is by the movie’s portrayal of her environment. In a way this is similar to the effect of seeing a partner’s home and family for the first time, and getting to know them better by learning about their past, but in a way it draws that effect out further—because with the shots of her environment, we see them through her eyes. The green stadiums of French countryside. The golden-hued trees. The way everything’s panoramic and obeys the rule of thirds, and the music that seems suspiciously similar to what you’d get if you googled relaxing orchestral music; this is the farm seen from her perspective. Brilliantly, the movie’s set up so that the more you learn about the things outside of Delphine the more you learn about Delphine herself.
Reason #4: Maybe I’m just easily politicized, but the middle-of-the-movie portrayal of Feminist liberation groups in the 1970s was protein for the inner activist in me. I was reminded of what I thought was right, and I wanted to fight for it.
Final Reason: It’s the way that all of these features come together to make La Belle Saison a good movie and not just a string of good scenes and ideas. It’s fascinating, and heart wrenching, and painful, and an instructive take on the clash between (subversive) political dedication and (subversive) romantic love. Expect the above and more.