REVIEW: L’Heureux Naufrage

Reviewed by Jake Howell at the 38th Montreal World Film Festival

Guillaume Tremblay’s mid-length documentary L’Heureux Naufrage asks a lot of questions about the state of a contemporary post-Christian Quebec, and it lends the voices of experts in a variety of different fields to try and answer them.

The film opens with some (perhaps heavy-handed) title cards that outline the filmmaker’s understanding of how modern Quebecois society has come to be: in short, for over 300 years Tremblay argues the Catholic church had a firm grip on the definitions of culture, health, education, ethics, and the conservation of language, but in the 1960s there was a mutiny on the boat of Christianity (literally: the happy shipwreck). It was a cultural paradigm shift that ushered in new freedoms and indulgences, but when Quebec moved away from a religious society, did it also discard an element of its identity? This question is the crux of what Tremblay is interested in, and he aims his lens at a roster of scholars who reflect at length fifty years after the l’heureux naufrage of the 1960s.

Tremblay opts for a talking-head approach to the subject, but rather than hear short snippets from his experts (which include filmmaker Denys Arcand, author Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt, philosopher Andre Comte-Sponville, and many more), Tremblay affords his interview participants large blocks of time without extensive cuts to speak their minds, a style that improves the film’s overall fidelity. If the documentary were much longer, this technique would be a criticism; that said, with a running time that is less than 50 minutes, Tremblay doesn’t nearly overstay his welcome.

The film also features some animated chiaroscuro drawings in a sepia-tone setting to literally illustrate certain points, and it is here where the documentary feels overwrought and exaggerated to a fault. In contrast, Tremblay’s most effective use of other mediums is his inclusion of archival footage, music videos, and other Quebecois content (including clips from Denis Villeneuve’s 1998 feature debut, Un 32 aôut sur terre and Denys Arcand’s 1989 Jésus de Montréal), where they echo the film’s tone and sentiments. As a card-carrying advocate of secular society, L’Heureux Naufrage doesn’t convince me of much; nevertheless, the film is a worthy, eloquent entry point into an interesting discussion.

Director Guillaume Tremblay, president of the FFM Ecumenical Jury Rev. Denyse Muller, and Professor Norman Cornett at the Montreal World Film Festival / Photo by Simon Nadeau