Why Does It Exist?

Picture Claire (2001)

In Reviews on June 23, 2011 at 11:05 pm

Despite this forceful warning, Claire gets fucked with relentlessly.

Using actors of one ethnicity to portray another has pretty much always been de facto in Hollywood. While it can sometimes be abhorrent (see Memoirs of a Geisha as a recent example), I can’t say that it has personally affected me that much. As a Québecois, I can’t really say that we’ve been represented too much on the silver screen. Justin Timberlake’s turn as Jacques ‘Le Coq’ Grande in The Love Guru was one of the more tolerable things to happen in that shitfest and the only other example I can think of off the top of my head is Laurence Olivier as a plaid-wearing lumberjack in Powell & Pressburger’s 49th Parallel. The worst that could usually happen is that they’d pass off a French actor as Québecois in a movie shot in Montreal. That was the worst until I heard about a little movie called Picture Claire.

I like Juliette Lewis. I think she doesn’t get enough credit as an actress, even. She may not have the greatest range but I’m usually glad to see her in a movie. That having been said, what in the name of cabbage-fucking Christ possessed anyone to cast Lewis as a Québecois who barely speaks a word of English? What in her long resumé made you think that was a good idea? Was it her performance as the cornpone sexpot in From Dusk Till Dawn or as the mentally-challenged title character in the heinous The Other Sister? Even if she killed it in the audition, how did anyone watch her on the first day of shooting and not think ‘we have made a terrible mistake’?!

Gina Gershon has done some pretty demeaning stuff on-screen (being in Showgirls, for one) but I've never seen this look of unbridled horror anywhere else.

Picture Claire is the handiwork of Canada’s most prolific director, Bruce McDonald. McDonald subscribes to the ‘one for me, one for them’ rule, biding his time between art flicks with children’s TV movies and episodes of LEXX. Despite overwhelming evidence pointing to this being the latter (straight-to-DVD release, presence of Mickey Rourke and Gina Gershon), it’s hard to figure out where McDonald was going with this one. It’s such a generic potboiler premise that I would be surprised if it was the kind of thing McDonald holds close to his heart. On the other hand, some of his most successful works have been genre pieces. No matter what the intention behind Picture Claire was, there’s no way it matched the final product.

The film opens with a French narration from Lewis as she leaves Montreal for Toronto after her apartment building burns down. It’s clear that Lewis had a dialogue coach that showed her the proper way to speak Québecois French but it’s so very clearly off. Her marble-mouthed, stilted delivery suggests Acadian by way of Raymond Babbitt. Anyway, she’s going to Toronto to see with her beau, Billy Stuart (Kelly Harm), who lives in Quenne-Zing-Tohn Marquette. When she gets to Quenne-Zing-Tohn, however, there’s no sign of Billy except for a sign on his door advertising his photographic exhibition. She can’t tell what it says (are you fucking kidding me?) so she goes to the donut shop downstairs where she gets no help at all from leather-clad goon Mickey Rourke.

Having lived in Quebec all of my life, I can attest to one thing: almost every person who speaks French in this fucking province would know what ‘photographic exhibition’ means even if they were a die-hard separatist who was raised in a windowless barn in the middle of nowhere, forced to listen to Gilles Vigneault records in lieu of an education. The equivalent in French would be ‘photographique’. IT’S THE SAME FUCKING WORD. McDonald and writer Semi Chellas place so much emphasis on Claire being French that she ends up being more fish-out-of-water than fucking Thor. Vito Andolini spent a month in a boat shitting himself and trying not to get dysentery, had never heard a word of English to the point that he rechristened himself Corleone after his hometown and even he had less trouble building a goddamned criminal empire than Claire Beaucage has getting directions after a six-hour bus ride west.

Your honor, I'd like to present Exhibit A of Why Bruce McDonald Should Probably Not Have Stuck With Split-Screen As His 'Thing'.

After getting no help from everyone’s favourite Dark Period lug, Claire goes into the washroom and Rourke is visited by his moll / partner-in-crime, Gina Gershon. They’re planning some sort of vague heist that doesn’t really get explained properly because Gershon fucking strangles Rourke to death. This, of course, is what Claire stumbles upon when she exits the washroom. Gershon drops her glasses and, ever the polite Canadian, Claire runs after her. When the old lady who runs the donut shop finds Rourke’s body, she immediately fingers Claire as the culprit. From there on in it’s a classic wrong-place-wrong-time thriller, like North by Northwest if Cary Grant was a Frenchman who learned his native tongue from an Acadian mechanic with an oversized tongue.

Picture Claire sees McDonald tinker with the split-screen format he eventually ran into the ground with The Tracey Fragments. While I certainly think McDonald is a talented filmmaker (and, as one whose entire career was spent in English Canada, a rarity), I don’t see what the big fucking deal is with the split-screen. I’m not really a fan of the technique in the first place but here it’s particularly unnecessary, used mostly as a way to spruce up sequences where no one is dying or Lewis isn’t vacantly staring into space because she doesn’t understand body language.

One positive thing about Picture Claire, however, is that it uses the interesting parts of Toronto as opposed to the boring, generic parts that almost every other Toronto-shot movie tends to dwell in. Where Atom Egoyan’s Toronto bides its time between the ass-end of Etobicoke and a four-block area of downtown that just so happens to look like every other major metropolitan city in North America, McDonald utilizes Kensington Market and its charms pretty well. As a locations nerd (just wait until the first Montreal-shot film makes it on here; you’ll be up to your neck in unnecessary and irritating trivia), I like to see films that utilize the locations people actually go to as opposed to the cheaper/more generic ones. It doesn’t make the actual movie any better but it makes the character of Toronto a hell of a lot more interesting than its actual main character and her phonetically-challenged warbling.

Gina Gershon sitting on a toilet. There, that should get me a couple of Google hits.

Still unaware that’s she’s the main suspect in the death of Rourke, Claire breaks into Billy’s apartment and is eventually forced to hang off the balcony as Billy engages in a naked romp with his new squeeze (played by Camilla Rutherford). Unaware that Gershon is pursued by a couple of goons (one of them played by Canadian mainstay Callum Keith Rennie), she nonetheless drops right into Gershon’s apartment and finds her sleeping on the couch, pistol in hand. Instead of getting the fuck out (as you would), she decides to grab Gershon’s purse in the process and get the fuck out when the cops mistakenly ring the doorbell to Gershon’s apartment when looking for Lewis who they believe is the woman who offed Rourke and who they believe is hiding out in Billy’s apartment. Gershon chases her down the street in cinema’s slowest cab chase yet, grabs the purse and is eventually cornered on the toilet (the sitting-on-the-toilet scene makes its tardy appearance) of a Chinese restaurant by the aforementioned goons.

If it isn’t obvious enough by this point, Picture Claire hinges on a series of contrivances so completely out there that it’s impossible not to see Claire as some sort of naive but benevolent alien. Her logic in this film rivals that of Joe Morton in The Brother From Another Planet in which he portrayed a mute alien who crash-landed to the middle of Harlem. That film was a funny, amiable fable, though – not an edge-of-your-seat thriller based around a series of certifiably insane decisions by its lead character. It’s one thing for Claire to get caught up in a case of mistaken identity because she can’t speak the language; it’s a whole other thing for her to break into an apartment and randomly decide to steal the shit of the person’s she’s being mistaken for strictly because it drives the plot.

What do they call a quarter-pounder in Toronto?

In the interest of not polluting the Internet with another disturbingly comprehensive summary of a dark period Mickey Rourke movie, here’s a brief summation of the interesting parts of Picture Claire past the point where one of the two goons (the one that looks like he’s in Joy Division) gets shot in the neck in the bathroom of a Chinese restaurant. There’s a chase scene during the Chinese New Year parade, lending credence to the fact that all chase scenes take place between January 21st and February 22nd. Claire steals a pair of ruby slippers (!) from Pontypool Antiques (ho ho ho) and gets fashion advice from a small dog, which I guess makes Gina Gershon the Wicked Witch and Callum Keith Rennie a flying monkey. Something like ten cops stop investigating a homicide or whatever it is at Union Station to engage Claire into yet another low-wattage foot chase. This foot chase leads to a low-wattage Mexican standoff and the inevitable ride off into the sunset.

I actually want to point out that I think Juliette Lewis does a decent job in the film. Certainly, a lot of care was put in the proper pronunciation of Québec slag but every actor has their limits and Lewis’ limit is firmly stuck on the Ottawa side of the Gatineau River. I find it hard to believe that financial considerations were behind casting this very American actress in a role where she speaks no English; certainly the film’s already pretty meagre appeal wouldn’t have dwindled to nothing if she had been replaced by Pascale Bussières or any of the hundreds of working Québec actresses that are capable of looking vaguely distressed for 90 minutes.

I can’t imagine what drew McDonald to such an inane, paint-by-numbers script. The characters are totally ill-defined, their relationships are non-existent (to the point where it’s not really even clear what the central point of the film is; Rourke dies for something that was pretty much a mystery to me up until the very end) and every single plot point (save maybe the early dispatching of my main man Mickey) is telegraphed a scene in advance. There’s no clever subtext, there’s barely even any text-text – all the film has going for itself is the delicious warblings of Ms. Lewis and even those are kind of phased out of existence gradually.

So why does it exist?

Unlike a lot of the movies I end up covering here, Picture Claire doesn’t come off like a half-assed attempt at parting undiscerning viewers from four bucks. It’s a carefully crafted film with decent performances all around (terrible accents notwithstanding). It’s really the writing that makes it an unendurable experience. Almost everything that happens here happens because a character randomly decides to make a terrible decision based on absolutely no discernable logic. It’s true not much could be done with a pretty hacky airport-novel plot like this one, but the frequent leaps of logic and variable intelligence of pretty much every character make this more of a willigetthroughthis than a whodunit. Based on that I’d say that this actually was a McDonald labour of love; it’s cast with some of his frequent collaborators (the late Tracy Wright stars as one of the detectives on the case) and McDonald’s love of Toronto definitely bleeds through. For a while I laboured under the impression that this was a po-mo deconstruction of this kind of throwaway thriller in much the same was Olivier Assayas made the similarly-annoying Boarding Gate (which starred Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as the heavy, no less) but there’s precious little to chew on in this script.

No, I think Picture Claire exists because a talented filmmaker decided to take on a more commercial project so he could try out some action scenes and dick around with this split-screen thing he was thinking of trying out. Out of all the generic crimes scripts he could’ve picked, he picked this turd. Try as he might, this turd can’t be polished. In trying to bridge the gap between ‘one for me and one for them’, McDonald made a movie for no one… except maybe swollen-tongued Acadian mechanics.

  1. I came across your blog on the somethingawful forum. Nice writing, you did a great job of making me interested in a film I will undoubtedly never watch. I too come from a place with an impenetrable French accent (Jersey, near France), although they will probably never set a movie here. The one that was set here (The Others) wasn’t even filmed here due to our bad accents.

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