Review: Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things & La Belle Saison at VQFF

Film still from  Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things

Film still from Two Soft Things, Two Hard Things

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 cant talk about Inuit sexuality without talking about Christianity, and you cant talk about Christianity without talking about colonialism, and talking about colonialism means exploring Nunavuts 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, theyve 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 whats 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 Nunavuts 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-linkedno roads, no gas stations, no phonesleaving 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 immobilitywe 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. Its painful for those who already knew it, because its recounted by those who are feeling its effects; and for those who hadnt heard about it, like me, it hurts in an oddly nationalistic way. If the Americas 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, its painful to be told theyre not truemaybe more painful than to not have believed them in the first place. If I could unlearn the disillusionment of Santa Claus and Love and Canadas supposed peacefulness, I would.

But learning about history is also extremely important. Of course, this is something were reminded of so often, its 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 youll 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 youre going. To give a practical example, then, is when Inuit are met with the inane comments you tend to see on message boardsrepudiations that the Inuit over-rely on government support, that they are lazy, etcthey 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 eha 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, its 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 its 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 doesnt brood on Nunavuts tragic aspects too long. Its not too punitive, or vengeful, or angry. Its 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. Theyve acknowledged their past, reconciled with it, and are starting to find a new way forward.

Film still from  Summertime (La Belle Saison)

Film still from Summertime (La Belle Saison)

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 themthis is her turf. But you cant 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 movies about love, and family, and duty, and obligation; and already theres a set-up inflated with dramatic tension. Still (I cant 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? Isnt there something better? Is this a bad investment of my time? Im glad I didnt: La Belle Saison is fully, electrically alive. Heres why:

Reason #1: La Belle Saison is worth watching because its a movie about love that makes love new. Its 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 formulait is, ultimately, about the pain of love not working outits about so much more than that. Its about how quick-moving and endorphin-inducing love can be (with genius cinematography; you can feel Delphines love for her female partner, Carole); and how frustrating and exhausting and fun it can be; how its always exciting to fall in love but its 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 beingDelphine can choose to be the identity shes made for herself at the farm: she can be shy, calm, fulfilled Delphine, or she can be what shes 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 continuouslyit hurts.

Reason #2: Theres 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 hes 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 its character development. Delphine is a character so recognizable but so unique she feels like she could walk out of the screen and you wouldnt 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, its the way we get such a perfect read on who she is by the movies portrayal of her environment. In a way this is similar to the effect of seeing a partners 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 furtherbecause with the shots of her environment, we see them through her eyes. The green stadiums of French countryside. The golden-hued trees. The way everythings panoramic and obeys the rule of thirds, and the music that seems suspiciously similar to what youd get if you googled relaxing orchestral music; this is the farm seen from her perspective. Brilliantly, the movies set up so that the more you learn about the things outside of Delphine the more you learn about Delphine herself.

Reason #4: Maybe Im 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: Its 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. Its 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.