When critics were discussing Bon Cop, Bad Cop upon its release two years ago, many cited it as the first bilingual feature film ever made in Canada. Indeed, part of the film’s intent was to bring together our nation’s Two Solitudes and unite them in box-office success.
But the citation was incorrect. In fact, that precedent was set with Larry Kent’s wondrous, far-too-often overlooked 1971 film, The Apprentice (aka Fleur bleue, which was its French title). Co-produced by doc guru Donald Brittain, the feature has a young, impoverished Québécois man (played by Stephen Fiset) struggling to make ends meet while navigating his way through an impressively messy romantic life. Fiset has a virgin girlfriend (Céline Bernier) who chides him for being broke and direction- less, but he is smitten with a gorgeous American free spirit who he encounters on the set of a TV commercial in which she’s acting. This sexual nymph is played by none other than Susan Sarandon, fresh from the first film that brought her significant attention, the cult anti-vigilante movie Joe (1970).
The Apprentice incorporates many of the best elements of Kent’s style, showing us his characters in all their flawed glory. As in High, some turn to crime as a means to an end, and there’s a free-wheeling spirit of sexual exploration unfolding at the same time. Sarandon has a couple of splendid nude scenes that fans will appreciate, and at one point she and Fiset even get down to a threesome with another male character. By this point, Kent had endured a censorship scandal with High (1967), in which the Montreal Film Fest aborted the screening of his film due to its saucy subject matter—a move that won Kent a legion of defenders, among them Warren Beatty, Fritz Lang and Jean Renoir. But that had not scared him away from experimentation. The Apprentice has a damn-the-torpedoes, genre-busting chutzpah about it, with elements of romantic and screwball comedies, heist movies and lusty sex romps all thrown into the mix. It creates a great stylistic tension, one that prompted Piers Handling to declare it “A light, airy, off-beat piece of work” in Cinema Canada magazine.
But to think of it merely as lite would be a mistake; Kent didn’t shy away from the thorny politics of the time. One can feel the fault lines in Quebec and Canada’s fraught relationship, especially in a scene where Fiset attends English lessons during which a ludicrously condescending teacher explains to him how he must communicate with his special lady friend. That an anglo filmmaker like Kent would delicately point out that the Quebecois were clearly not masters in their own home deserves much praise, but Kent recalls now that the critics were lukewarm—if not outright chilly—to The Apprentice when it first premiered. “We were certainly thinking about the politics of it all at the time,” he says. “How couldn’t we? We were cutting the film during the October Crisis, when tanks were rolling through the streets of Montreal. It was eerie. But you know, the English-language critics hadn’t warmed up to me since the fuss over High, and I think a lot of the French critics didn’t really like the fact that The Apprentice depicted Montreal as a bilingual city. The move then for the nationalists, of course, was to establish Montreal as a French-speaking city.”
As well, Kent says the idea of bank robberies throughout the movie was inspired by the spate of heists that had hit Montreal in the late ’60s. “Montreal was definitely going through a tough time economically, and there were a lot of bank robberies that seemed to be going on almost constantly—they were always in the papers and on the nightly news.”
The real crime is that The Apprentice is not out on DVD. That’s right, by some giant, cosmic screwing, this film is almost impossible to see. It still surprises me, as it does the students in my Canadian film class at Concordia, where I show the film every year. As it stands, that’s one of the few opportunities we have to watch this fantastic independent film at all.