Maple Syrup Porn: The Secret History of Quebec Popular Cinema
While many Quebec filmmakers looked to the French "cinma direct"movement and directors like Goddard and Truffaut for inspiration, entrepreneurs like Denis Héroux and Claude Fournier did not. Through simply being in the right place and the right time and possessing a profound ability to exploit their audience, Héroux and Fournier created a popular boom of sex films at a critical time in the history of Quebec cinema.
The censorship of films in Quebec goes all the way back to 1912. Originally, the Catholic Church fought the imported Hollywood films which were being shown in the province. Since few French films were made in Quebec until the 1940s, they believed that watching Hollywood's populist melodramas would eventually cost them their unique culture. Although the situation had relaxed somewhat when Quebec filmmaking picked up in 1945-1953, directors still found themselves fighting Quebec's censorship bureau over scenes of violence, anti-religious sentiment and sexual content.
Meanwhile, south of the 49th, censorship in film was consistently being challenged and rethought. Although the appearance of naughty bits in film can be traced back almost to the beginning of the century, nudity did not become widely seen or accepted until the early 1960s. It was exploitation pioneers David Friedman and HG Lewis who began making what they called "nudie cuties," with such barely naughty titles as The Adventures of Lucky Pierre (1961), Nature's Playmates (1962) and Boin-n-g (1963). Russ Meyer is perhaps the best known director who became associated with this type of filmmaking, which featured nothing more than buxom young girls showing off for the camera, and a whole lot of sexual innuendo. Considered tame by today's standards, these films were big money makers through the sixties, coinciding nicely with the coming sexual revolution. However, in the exploitation game, you've got to get out with all your chips while you can. That time was in 1972, when the swingin' films of the sixties quickly died with the rise of hardcore sex films.
Most film censorship died out in 1967, when Quebec's censorship bureau was replaced by more conventional film ratings system thanks in part to films like Larry Kent's High. Coincidentally, the Canadian Film Development Corporation was established the following year, a crown corporation which offered loans and financing to Canadian film productions. Stepping in at this critical point were directors Denis Héroux and Claude Fournier, who knew that when you added up free love and free government money, the result could be a successful mix of comedy, nationalism, and nudity.
Héroux made Valérie, Quebec's first "nudie"film, in 1968. Valérie runs away from the Catholic orphanage to the bright lights of Montreal, and the film goes on to detail her exploits as a topless dancer and a high-class prostitute before she falls in love and settles down with a Montreal artist. Valérie was made for under $100,000, some of which was provided by the CFDC after Héroux had already started filming. A commercial smash, Valérie went on to huge box offices in both Quebec and France. Because Valérie returns to the Catholic role of the housewife after her indiscretions, this film is often seen as a simple morality tale. However, conservative endings were frequently seen in American exploitation films. Called "square ups," these tacked on endings allowed exhibitors to claim their films were cautionary tales, even though their sole purpose was to portray nudity and implied sex as luridly and commercially as possible.
Seeing the box office potential of Quebec films such as Valérie, Montreal-based distributor Cinepix switched it's focus away from international films to become the main distributor of commercial films made in Quebec. Héroux himself continued to make several pictures in the genre he had pioneered including L'initiation (1969), L'Amour Humain (1970) and Sept Fois ... (Par Jour) (1971), which were all distributed by Cinepix. But, as popular as the black and white Valérie was, it was quickly eclipsed by the success of a similar, colour film Deux Femmes en Or (1970).
What made Valérie so successful was undoubtedly Quebec's equating of the collapse of censorship and rise of sex in the cinema with their own freedom. After working at the NFB as both a script writer and director, Claude Fournier directly exploited this concept when he made Deux Femmes en Or for $218,000. It is estimated that this film was seen by 2 million Quebec residents, pulling in a staggering box office of $4 million. Deux Femmes en Or tells the tale of two bored suburban housewives yearning for freedom through sex, seducing a wide variety of handymen and delivery boys. In an odd turn, they are arrested for murder when the local pet shop owner dies during a liaison, but to their delight, the judge decides to let them off. This film, which steps up the nationalism of Valérie by making jokes at the expense of English-Canada, features nude appearances by several local Quebec stars, and even a cameo by Pierre Trudeau at a decidedly Canadian Roughriders vs. Rough Riders football game. Canadian genre films often subvert American conventions, and Deux Femmes en Or is no exception. It has been suggested that the liberal (and liberating) ending of this film is actually parody of Valérie's "square up."
Picking up on this cinematic trend, industry rag Variety started referring to these films as "maple syrup porn."However, an article by Andre Loiselle titled "Subtly Subversive or Simply Stupid: Notes on Popular Quebec Cinema" reveals that in Quebec these films had much more colourful names, including "films de fesses"(butt movies), "films de cul"(ass movies) or "films cochons"(pig movies). As with many of the horror and drive-in films coming out of English-Canada, there was a serious backlash against the "films cochons."Straight-laced Canadians were outraged at the thought that the government was funding porn, and demanded the CFDC be more discerning in their choices of film. It turns out that no one needed to worry, because only four years after the "films cochons" began, they were all but obliterated by the success of a low-budget hardcore sex film that took the New York theatres by storm-- Deep Throat.
Despite what some saw as the morally objectionable content of Valérie, Deux Femmes en Or and the films that succeeded them, these films play an essential part in the history of Canadian film. Héroux and Fournier managed to draw millions of Francophones in to theatres to watch home-grown entertainment. Not only has this never been achieved in English Canada, but it set the stage for Quebec's popular film successes which continue to this day. Singlehandedly, these pig movies built the commercial backbone of contemporary Quebec popular cinema.
More Maple Syrup Porn
L'Amour Humain (1970)
(AKA The Awakening, Virgin Lovers) A nun and a priest give up religion to have guiltless sex. Directed by Denis Héroux.
(AKA Sex in the Snow, Snowballin') A definite predecessor of Ski School, Apres-Ski revolves around the sexual conquests of a ski instructor. It even features a scene of skiing in the buff. Starring Celine Lomez and directed by Roger Cardinal.
(AKA Initiation) A young Montreal woman has an affair with a famous French author, and the experience helps to teach about life and love. Directed by Denis Héroux.
Les Jeunes Qubcoises (1980):
Claude Castravelli (who had previously made the brilliantly titled Up Uranus!) directs this sexually explicit film about four university girls who plan an orgy with male students. Comedy results when her parents come home early from their vacation.
Love in a Four Letter World (1970):
(AKA Sex Isn't Sin, Viens, Mon Amour) Stars Monique Mercure from Deux Femmes en Or. An anglophone, John Sole directs this picture in English.
Loving and Laughing (1971):
(AKA The Hippie Girls) This sex farce stars Celine Lomez and Sue Helen Petrie. A prince and the pauper tale where an uptight square young man who spends time in a commune, while a hippie takes his place as a French tutor for a rich family's daughter. Directed by John Sole, and also in English.
La Mort d'un Bcheron (1973):
(AKA The Death of a Lumberjack) A young girl that comes to Montreal to find her dad is made to sing country & western topless.
Pile ou Face (1971):
(AKA Heads or Tails, A Very Private Party) More sex on skis, directed by Roger Fournier.
(AKA The Apple, the Stem and the Seeds) Claude Fournier directs this sex comedy about impotentvy immediately after getting married.
Sept Fois ... (Par Jour) (1971):
(AKA Seven Times a Day) A Quebecois architect cannot resist the urge to make love to all the women he meets. Directed by Denis Héroux.