1971, Starring André Dubois, Louise Forestier, Serge Grenier Marc Laurendeau. Directed by Jacques Godbout (National Film Board).
1971 was a watershed year for Canadian film, a time when the newly formed Canadian Film Development Corporation seemed to be living up to its promise. Identifiable styles were starting to take shape in our emerging industry, and critics heralded these exciting new directions as Canada's unique cinematic calling card to the world. Margaret Atwood was hard at work writing about how our literary works were steeped in a long tradition of anti-heroes "surviving" hardships, and she widened her critical scope to include many of the recent Canadian films of the early 1970s, noting that they were essentially "dramatizations of failure."
However, the turn-of-the-century Canadian heroism exemplified by the Mounties wasn't obsolete; it had just been channeled into more contemporary, but still identifiably Canadian figures. This was nowhere more apparent than Canada's burgeoning pulp industry, best represented by the French-Canadian "roman feuilletons" (serial novels). Written, illustrated and printed in Quebec from the 1940s until the late 1960s, these popular 32-page books encompassed the thrilling sub-literary genres of romance, science-fiction, crime and espionage, and featured some of the greatest Canadian heroes you've never heard of.
In the same year that critics applauded Pete and Joey's coast to coast misfortune in Don Shebib's Goin' Down the Road, Jacques Godbout, the head of the NFB's French production division, brought his boyhood hero to Quebec theatres: a charismatic super spy named IXE-13 who starred in the popular roman feuilleton of all, "Les Aventures Etranges de L'Agent IXE-13, L'As des Espions Canadiens." With the help of Les Cyniques, a popular Quebec sketch comedy troupe, and local musicians Carole Laure and Louise Forestier, Godbout's IXE-13 recreated and spoofed the infamous gentleman spy, taking the character's influence beyond the printed page to cement him as a true Canadian icon.
To say that the colourful, over-the-top musical spoof was out of step with the prevailing film culture would be a gross understatement. The film begins with a satirical condemnation of the roman feuilletons by the Catholic Church. Waving an IXE-13 roman feuilleton, a Priest (Serge Grenier) rails against the pulps and warns the boys in his parish to stop spending their dimes on lurid serial adventures. From there, the film launches into a dynamic title sequence, set to a song which proclaims the spy as the "French-Canadian dream," with dozens of IXE-13 cover illustrations intercut with the characters in the film receiving communion wafers.
In the pulpy plot, Canadian Secret Service head Général Smiley asks IXE-13 (André Dubois) to solve the mysterious assassination of a wrestler named Bob West. To crack the case, IXE-13 meets up with his perpetual finacée Gisèle Duboeuf (Forestier) and French spy Marius Lamouche (Marcel Saint-Germain) to comb the deceased athlete's apartment. Finding a safety deposit box key, IXE-13 follows a trail of clues that takes him from a bank, to reformed Communist Shaïra's (Laure) strip club performance, to a wrestling sideshow at a circus.
While investigating the murder, the ace of the Canadian spies is sought by his most viscous villains, the "Queen of the Chinese Communists" Taya (Forestier, in a second role) and disfigured Nazi Von Tracht (Marc Laurendeau), but it's the flower-picking Gisèle who is mysteriously kidnapped, sending Marius on a worldwide search. Taya undergoes plastic surgery to get close enough to assassinate IXE-13, but inadvertently falls in love with the dapper spy before she can complete her mission. When he rebukes her advances to get into his white pinstripe suit, she is forced to hypnotize him for a night of love and a second, more deadly, assignment.
The story affectionately apes many the familiar clichés and convenient plot devices that featured prominently in Les Aventures Etranges de L'Agent IXE-13. Sporting a striped shirt, a beret and a ridiculous mustache, Marcel Saint-Germain's portrayal of the uncultured Lamouche is a jab at the vaguely offensive French characters in the book. In his nighttime attire of a Montreal Canadiens jersey and fleur-de-lis boxer shorts, IXE-13 becomes an absurdly debonair flag-waver that would make Bonhomme Carnaval blush. Disguises were a favourite ploy of Daignault's, and the film never misses an opportunity to have his characters trick each other with the slightest and most conspicuous outfits; no matter how many times they meet incognito, IXE-13 always fails to notice the large, telling scar on Von Tracht's cheek. Taya's seduction of the unwitting IXE-13 at the end of the film would also have been familiar to longtime readers of the series, as would the film's finale, which has Gisèle again left at the altar. But more than that, IXE-13 is also a whimsical compendium of Canadian film styles of the early 20th Century, combining an omniscient narrator, snippets of NFB-style animation, and even a few brief scenes from a dull 1946 NFB nature short, Au Parc Lafontaine.
Quebec was still emerging from under the repressive thumb of the church in 1971, a social change that was reflected best by Cinepix's softcore "maple syrup porn" films, which tapped into the Quiet Revolution's feelings of liberation. Although not entirely to the oblivious to the new emancipation Quebec often represented in the nude female form, IXE-13 takes a slightly different tact, parodying the province's previous reliance on religion. Not only does the film begin and end in the Catholic church, but IXE-13 talks about being raised by Jesuits and even attacks a shadowy figure with a flying rosary.
To capture the flat, two-dimensional comic book style of the action (or perhaps to save a couple bucks in this already very low budget adaptation), the sets are almost entirely constructed from painted pasteboard. For example, at the wrestling match, an audience is simply drawn in the background, lending a rather unfortunate low-rent atmosphere in certain scenes. Likewise, no attempt is made to disguise some of the miniatures in the film--if the script calls for IXE-13 to ride on a train, then the camera goes in for a close-up of an electric toy locomotive.
Certainly there were a few genre satires that were released before this film, such as Gil Taylor's psychedelic monster outing Flick, but IXE-13 is really in a league all its own; Canada's sole camp classic that wouldn't be topped until 1983's quite different Vancouver sci-fi spoof Big Meat Eater. It's a shame that the IXE-13 is criminally unknown outside the province of Quebec, because despite its faults, this film is truly a unique Canadian cultural artifact--there is nothing else quite like it.