La vraie nature de Bernadette
At a time when the once all-powerful Catholic Church had lost its grip on Québécois, director Gilles Carle made this sardonic fable about a woman’s quest to find spiritual harmony on her own terms. It won five Canadian Film Awards — including best director, screenplay, lead actress and supporting actor — and was also very popular in France, where it screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival. Considered one of the best Canadian films ever made, it was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 1984, and one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history in a similar poll in 2016.
Like many real-life 1970s professionals, Bernadette Brown (Micheline Lanctôt) drops out of city life, expecting to find nirvana down on the farm. She leaves her lawyer husband in Montréal, and takes off for a farmhouse where she plans to raise her child on clean air and simple living. As she speeds along a country road, her way is blocked by a demonstration led by her new neighbour, Thomas (Donald Pilon). He has blocked the road to protest the destruction of his village by faceless entities, supermarket chains and government indifference. Her disappointing new environment batters Bernadette’s naive idealism: the house she bought is ramshackle and occupied by a horse; and her neighbours are hardly wise and noble peasants with life lessons to teach.
As Bernadette discovers that country life is actually venal and nerve-wracking, she ironically begins to resemble her namesake, Saint Bernadette of Lourdes. The locals believe that this city woman can heal the lame and cause water to flow on arid land. The fact that Bernadette's blessings include sexual favours is typical of Carle's take on miraculous transformations. He both mocks and venerates, mainly through Lanctôt's indelible performance as a woman who won't give up on her vision. Ultimately, Bernadette's education brings her to an understanding that the "country" is no sanctuary from isolation, death or evil.
Carle has said that he got the idea for the film at a time when he was working in the basement of Place Bonaventure in downtown Montréal. In this cement and concrete bunker with no windows, he dreamed of the country and began writing a screenplay. He originally envisioned Carole Laure in the lead role, but changed his mind after meeting Micheline Lanctôt, who at the time was an animator with no acting experience. Carle described their chance encounter as a “miracle,” and felt that Lanctôt’s beauty and serene aura of purposefulness were a perfect match for the character. “I saw in her an elegance, and gradually, I began to visualize her in a landscape,” he has said.
Like almost all of Carle’s films, La vraie nature de Bernadette is vivid, effervescent and sometimes unapologetically lurid. It provokes the viewer with its irreverence, its ambiguities, and its tonal shifts between farce and melancholy. Carle mixes the ridiculous with the sublime and rubs the sacred against the profane. In her passionate need to escape the banality of her middle-class existence, Bernadette displays admirable commitment and heroic stamina. At the same time, she’s a preposterous Utopian, Carle’s distinctly Québécoise spoof of 1960s and 1970s baby boomers who thought they could save their souls by pulling on cow’s udders and shovelling manure.
Unlike more conventional Québécois films, including Carle’s own Maria Chapdelaine (1983), there are only brief flashes of bucolic lyricism. The movie's overriding irony is that the beautiful Acadia Bernadette imagined in her Montréal apartment does not exist. Nevertheless, amid the mud and dung, her dignity and resolution rarely waver.
Reception and Legacy
La vraie nature de Bernadette screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and was very well received during its commercial release in France, where it sold nearly 300,000 tickets. It won five Canadian Film Awards and remains one of the most popular Québec films ever made. It was designated as a “masterwork” by the Audio-Visual Preservation Trust in 2001. In 2016, it was named one of 150 essential works in Canadian cinema history by a poll of 200 media professionals conducted by TIFF, Library and Archives Canada, the Cinémathèque québécoise and The Cinematheque in Vancouver in anticipation of the Canada 150 celebrations in 2017.
1972 Canadian Film Awards
Direction – Feature (Gilles Carle)
Music Score – Feature (Pierre Brault)
Original Screenplay – Feature (Gilles Carle)
Performance by a Lead Actress – Feature (Micheline Lanctôt)
Supporting Actor – Feature (Donald Pilon)
Michel Coulombe, Entretiens avec Gilles Carle: Le chemin secret du cinéma (Liber, 1995).
Gilles Carle, La Nature d’un cinéaste (Liber, 1999).
Christopher Gittings, Canadian National Cinema (Routledge, 2001).
Wyndham Wise, ed., Take One's Essential Guide to Canadian Film (University of Toronto Press, 2001).
George Melnyk, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (University of Toronto Press, 2004).
Gilles Carle, Scénarios 2 (Boréal, 2005).