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Wednesday, June 1, 2005

Slow life can be good medicine

La Grande seduction

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Jean-Francois pouliot
Running time: 110 minutes
Language: French
Opens June 5
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The slow life has its problems too, as depicted in "La Grande seduction" (released in Japan as "Ooinaru Kyuuka"). Set on a fictitious island called Sainte-Marie-La-Mauderne off the coast of Quebec (actually the celebrated beauty spot Harrington Harbor), it ticks off the ills of remote rural living: an ever-shrinking populace, alcoholism and a community that's become so intimate that when a girl loses her virginity the entire island knows about it.

News photo
Benoit Briere, Raymond Bouchard and Pierre Collin in "La Grande seduction"

Still, these are bearable ills compared to the degradation of unemployment. Almost every male on the island is jobless -- once-proud fishermen, they have been reduced these last eight years to moping around and collecting welfare checks at the end of the month. The island is full of charm and the beauties of nature, but it's clear the inhabitants are more than ready to switch gears.

Directed by Canada's Jean-Francois Pouliot, "La Grande seduction" opens with former fisherman Germain (Raymond Bouchard) reminiscing about the good old days of his boyhood when there were still plenty of fish in the water and his father, along with everyone else, worked late every night. At home, his mother would be waiting with a simple but delicious meal, and after that his parents would retire to their bedroom to make love and sleep -- "the sleep of the truly contented -- ah, that was happiness!"

Now, prolonged unemployment has robbed Germain of self-respect and any desire for passion with Helene (Rita Lafontaine), his wife of many years. Germain knows it's the same story with every other household on the island and that the only solution is to get a plastics manufacturer to build a factory and hire the locals. The catch: The conditions stipulate that the island has its own doctor, but there hasn't been one for years.

The lack of medical care on outports is a real and immediate problem, but instead of getting serious about it, Pouliot sticks to humor. The biggest ailment on the island seems to be athlete's foot, and minor injuries are patched up by the local butcher, whose suture skills apparently aren't so hot. A boat skipper spends most of his screen time with half of his bloody face inexpertly bandaged up, but he remains gruff and resigned. Gruff and resigned seems to be the only mood on the island.

Germain, however, is determined to change things. He sends out fliers to every hospital in Quebec hoping to lure a doctor to come and enjoy the slow life. Eventually, an irreverent coke-sniffing plastic surgeon from Montreal is coerced into accepting the position for a month. To get this Dr. Lewis (David Boutin) to sign on more or less permanently, Germain rounds up his buddies Yvon (Pierre Collin) and Henri (Beno^it Briere) to spy on the good doctor relentlessly and cook up all sorts of persuasive schemes.

For instance, the doctor is a cricket fan, so they form a team straightaway and pretend that it's been the island sport for generations. They strategically place small amounts of cash on the path leading to the doctor's house, just to give him the pleasure of finding it. They glean he's somewhat of a foot-fetishist, so the entire populace goes about the next day in open-toed shoes.

When the city-slicker doc goes fishing, there's Yvon lurking underneath the boat to attach a frozen fish to his hook. Lewis is, at first, bewildered by the good luck that literally showers down on him, and then accepts it as part of island living. "It's not bad here!" he reports jovially to his girlfriend in Montreal, blissfully unaware that his phone is being tapped.

There's nothing in the picture that goes beyond the quaint charm of similar works, like "Waking Ned Devine," in which a whole village conspires to fool the Irish lottery authorities by pretending that a local lotto winner (who really died of a heart attack) is alive and well. Quaintness and whimsy, however, are modes far more difficult to achieve than is generally given credit for. One false push can send the whole thing over the cliff into unbearable cutesiness. "La Grande seduction" happily avoids such a fate, and though the conclusion is pretty predictable, the process it takes to get there is full of suspenseful twists.

Pouliot assembles a memorable cast with the faces and physiques of men who have toiled outdoors all their lives, in all kinds of weather. Being accustomed to the honey-bronzed visages that roll off the Hollywood conveyor belt weekly, it's a bit of a shock to be confronted with their ruddy, unshaved and pitted complexions. It's hard to believe these men, with their large and coarse hands, are actors.

"La Grande seduction" is mindful of an ideal vacation (the Japanese title, which translates to "A Grand Vacation," is quite appropriate in this sense): any entertainment provided is the authentic kind, and it all takes place on a remote island that's the perfect blend of paradise and tradition. One can only hope Club Med doesn't get any ideas.

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