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Canuxploitation!

Isabel

Y1968, Starring Genevieve Bujold, Gerald Parkes, Marc Strange, and Al Waxman. Directed by Paul Almond (Paramount Pictures).



Guest review by Patrick Lowe

Over her career, veteran Canadian star Genevieve Bujold has distinguished herself in more than a few ways. Not only was she  the first Quebecois actress to make an international splash in Hollywood through films like Anne of a Thousand Days and '70s thrillers  Obsession and Coma, but she also made her mark back home as work  in Dead Ringers and as the aging but still seductive French teacher in Last Night, as well as other efforts including Kamouraska and Murder By Decree. Or maybe she's better known among bloggers for (thankfully) not getting the lead in the Star Trek spin-off Voyager.

For me, however, her defining role will always be the title character of Isabel. With her elfin face, slightly parted lips, androgynous haircut, and, oh those eyes--innocent dark pupils staring so intently they practically burn through the goddamned screen--the 25-year-old Bujold was never more radiant or haunting. This is especially true in one scene from the oft-forgotten Canadian film, as her character sits alone in her room, topless. Little happens as she takes in the space around her, as she listens, smells herself, and lies down. Yet her visage breathes a vivid, if unnameable air of something happening. Or as Wendy Michener wrote in the Globe and Mail, " ....she shows her mastery of silence, the real art of acting in movies. The anxious, faun-like look she wears is more than make-up. It is willed, conscious, just short of being strained in its intensity."

This "mastery of silence" is just one of the many strengths of Isabel, an occasionally heavy-handed, but gripping gothic suspenser, released in 1968 and directed by Bujold's then-husband Paul Almond.  Almond himself was somewhat atypical of most Canadian directors in the '60s. His background was in television drama and he had a penchant for a cinematic mysticism at odds with the country's traditional style in docudrama. Yet, on his own, he produced a highly-stylized metaphysical thriller that was, for a time, the country's best known feature, as well as the first Canadian film to be fully funded by a Hollywood studio (Paramount Pictures, to the tune of $250,000). The reviews on both sides of the border were mixed some like Judith Christ raved about it, while from the North, critics either praised the film with major reservations, or panned it in spite of its virtues. Still, Isabel was a modest box-office success (and a winner of five Etrogs, the Canadian Film Awards of its day), securing Bujold's status as a major talent and allowing both Almond and Bujold to collaborate on two more features in Almond's "metaphysical" trilogy, The Act Of The Heart and Journey, until their divorce in 1972.

Yet after nearly 40 years since first gaining renown, the film has largely fallen under the cultural radar, relegated to little more than a footnote in academic journals. Why? For one thing, like Harvey Hart's The Pyx, Almond's piece is almost a bastard prodigy--an English and French-language thriller with religious overtones, which mixes equal doses of Canadian realism with the paranormal. Up front, it's a haunted house story, but it's not hardcore horror, owing less to William Castle than to the European influences of Bergman and Polanski. Unlike  The Changeling, the spirits that torment Isabel may be more visceral than other-worldly a ghost story without the ghosts as it were. As well, it was too uncharacteristic as a Canadian film for the nationalists to take pride in it and either too regional or idiosyncratic to make the grade with cult enthusiasts. So like the country itself, it had no clear cut identity, and to this day, it is still unavailable on home video or DVD despite being a repeated staple on Canadian television. Yet somehow, this obscurity only enhances Isabel's uncanny status. Just watching the film is to experience an eerie sensation of viewing an elusive spectre that ascends out of nowhere, makes itself seen, then plunges back into the primordial abyss of late night television from whence it came.

The film opens with Isabel Garnet (Bujold) returning to her native hamlet on the Gasp coast to attend her mother's funeral. There, she is reunited with her only family, her elderly Uncle Matthew (Gerald Parkes, Fraggle Rock) and her older sister Estelle (Therese Cadorette), a nun, who has distanced herself from the affair, given that their mom wanted to be buried in a Protestant cemetery.  During the young woman's stay at her uncle's household, we learn that death has been at the doorstep of Isabel's family for some time--her father, William, and brothers Arnold and Jacob all died under mysterious circumstances, leaving her mother to tend to Matthew for her remaining years. And the doddering Uncle exhibits a paternal, but creepy, affection towards Isabel. "You know, you look more like your mother every day," he mutters. And later at the cemetery, he says to his niece "This space is for you... then we'll all be there together one day.

Meanwhile, the coastal seas begin to rage, the spring ice melts and things get weird.  Isabel witnesses the wraith-like appearance of her brother Arnold during a storm, then later hears spooky sounds emanating from family mementos, especially portraits of her grandfather Cedric. On top of that, she finds herself accosted by Jason (Marc Strange), a handsome, but mysterious stranger  who bears a surprising resemblance to all the portraits of Isabel's male kin. And if that weren't enough, she is also pursued by Herb, an obnoxious old school friend  played by none other than Al Waxman--every woman's nightmare.  Over drinks, Herb reveals to Isabel  that Grandpa Cedric had originally brought Isabel's mother over as a maid, who then married his son, William. Six months later, Estelle was born, and, then when Isabel's dad went off to war for five years, "Uncle Matthew stayed home (with your mother) cause he's unfit," chortles Herb. "You figure it out for yourself."

The poor girl's sanity continues into a downward spiral as the apparitions continue to harass her. Then after attending a local town dance, Herb lures Isabel up to a nearby barn with his male buddies, who try to rape her until Jason intervenes with his last-minute heroics. Returning home to the creaky sounds of her house at night, she finds her Uncle all alone, sobbing to himself "I loved your mother..." Horrified by the possibility that maybe Matthew was more than her uncle, Isabel flees outside, to a nearby pier where she finds Jason facing her. Against the crashing waves in almost total darkness, the two violently make love. As they do so, she sees herself in turn copulating with Arnold, Daddy, and Uncle.

Weird, huh?  Isabel's atmospheric stew of incest, family secrets, repressed memories, darkened corridors, and the ever enigmatic Canadian landscape has all the ingredients you'd expect from a Guy Maddin film. In fact, Isabel was in many ways a national precursor to the more individualized works of Maddin, Egoyan, or Cronenberg, especially with its penchant for the dark, the erotic and the unexpected. What distinguishes Almond's style is his  seeking out of the inner storms brewing behind his characters' demeanour in settings that seem conventional at first, but prove to be anything but. It's an approach that keeps the storyline slightly off balance. As Almond once put it, "I'm much more interested in what happens underneath the surface. In some cases I've succeeded in, in other I've confused people. But a little confusion isn't necessarily a bad thing."

"The film is about fear, and how fear somehow is the block to be broken in order to love,"  Almond explained. To underscore this point, he emphasizes the contrast between Isabel's quiet innocence with the malevolence of a family history she only thinks she's escaped from. Hints are given via incongruous voices about her strict upbringing and the family secrets that she seems clueless of. As a result, Isabel herself becomes very much a pre-feminist '60s heroine, who--like the female protagonists of Repulsion or Rosemary's Baby-- is never in control. She's completely at the mercy of forces around and within her, and when she runs for sanctuary, it's inevitably into the arms of a man as protector and benefactor. But if Almond's point is that Isabel's fear must be dealt with for any real emotional awakening, he also implies that her independence has to be sacrificed as well. To be a single woman, in this world, is a dangerous thing. This becomes all too apparent in Isabel's encounter with Estelle, a cold wreck of a woman, implying that to leave home is to leave one's happiness behind. Given the family reunion that occurs at the end when Bujold and Strange make love against the crashing waves, intercut with images of other men in her life kissing her, you really wonder about what the double meanings are. Is she better off at the mercy of men? Is Mark really her saviour from her family? Or is he family? And do you have to copulate with your kin to get any immediate sense of closure? Home, it seems, isn't just where the heart is, it's where your worst nightmares reside as well.

Mind you, the morality of all this  is contingent on whether or not Isabel is only imagining this, and a few critics in their day complained that Almond was not successful in playing it as both a supernatural thriller and a psychological study. Yet this dichotomy between the real and visceral not only intensifies Isabel's struggle, but also allows the director to flaunt his style. As M. Night Shyamalan later did with his  films, Almond constantly teases the audience, revealing the supernatural with only bare glimpses. Thanks to his own mastery of silence, the quieter things become, the spookier they get, as everything Isabel touches--be it a photo album, cellar vegetable or Cedric's WWI gas mask--is effused with a grim foreboding. Alongside DOP Georges Dufaux, Almond is also successful in visualizing how even nature becomes a character in itself, as the surrounding violent natural elements appear to work alongside the ghosts to keep Isabel at bay. It also allows George Appleby to be non-conventional with his new wave-influenced editing. Sometimes it gets choppy and the continuity suffers, but it allows for an amazing opening sequence that intercuts Isabel's train ride to the Gasp with shots of future events to come--less precognition and more as if the girl's future has been preordained. This all works towards building up the full mystery of the film, one that writer Dennis Potter described as "all clues and no solutions."

The movie receives a few demerit points, however, due to some awkward moments in the acting, plus a few details that come across as hokey or forced (when Isabel falls to the floor in terror and finds Matthew appearing out of nowhere in his nightgown, for instance). Still, Almond manages to build the suspense, and alongside  Dufaux, does wonders with the setting. The atmosphere that is evoked is pure Canadiana--an isolated, rural hamlet, locked in by nature and the sea, mired in religion, town gossip, and ravaged by the seasons. By employing real locations and actual townsfolk from the village of Shigawake for the supporting cast, Almond adds an authentic regional air to the intrigue, creating a world that is simultaneously homely and hostile. Even the country house feels haunted, with the creaky floorboards, oil lamps, and eerie country silence, punctuated only by the hourly chimes of a grandfather clock. Plus, the images of ghosts past are more than a little unsettling. One particularly  spooky moment has Isabel look up to see the silhouette of a solitary figure standing on the horizon--present, but obscure.

Like so many Canadian filmmakers of his generation, Almond made his mark with one or two features, then fell into artistic obscurity. After Isabel, he  achieved similar success with Act of the Heart (1971) again with Bujold, co-starring Donald Sutherland, which also combined the cerebral with the mythical. But after the failure of Journey (1972), he went back to directing television, returning to features with the dull cold-war thriller Final Assignment (1981) and the autobiographical Ups and Downs (1984). Eventually, he retired from filmmaking and took up life as a novelist. Possibly his style was just too distinct and too mysterious for a country that was still struggling with its cinematic identity. And despite the occasional retrospective, his films still remain between the cracks.

So the question remains: is there a new fan base for this film? Would current aficionados of Canadian schlock see it for its strengths or regard it like some unwanted relative that is always seen but never heard? In an era of digitally slick, but derivative horror fare, when almost every scareshow is just a rock video mess or an anorexic copy of superior Japanese fare, I'd say, rough edges aside, Isabel has stood the test of time. Like Bujold's face, it continues to hold a Pandora's box of inner meanings, revealing something new with each viewing. It really deserves more of a reputation, outside of being just another cultural artifact for the AV Trust or some repeat to fill up the CRTC mandate. C'mon fans, what's the hold-up?


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