When Growing Up Rhymes with Isolation: Youth Alienation in Quebec Cinema

TW: Suicide, overdose

Whenever the term ‘coming-of-age’ is being discussed, one would usually assume that the rite of passage undertook by the young protagonist would ultimately lead them through some form of resolution towards a newfound maturity, if not adulthood.

But what happens when the opposite occurs?

Narrating the last days of two teenage girls (Louisette and Chantal) in Montreal and its suburbs, Sonatine (dir. Micheline Lanctôt, 1984) traces both characters’ disconnection from the outside world through their use of public transport – an alienation that will ultimately lead them to their demise. In this sense, the characters literally do not come of age. Despite its grim (and even, perhaps, nihilistic) conclusion, the film proposes the pursuit of a sense of self through public spaces, and more precisely through public transport. One could also look at the collective post-referendum depression from the 1980s to explain the collective indifference from Quebec towards its youth at the time, which would give a reason for the adults in Sonatine to be completely aloof towards the two young women throughout the entirety of the narrative, although this would be a topic for another time.

This intertextuality between teenage alienation and the city as presented in Sonatine was precisely the reason why I had sought the film in the first place; while one could argue that Québec cinema suffers from being Montreal-centric most of the times, the interplay between social isolation and the physicality of public spaces is not something readily apparent in Québec’s cinematography. Sure, some key Québécois pictures have centered their narrative around the modern city, like Jésus de Montréal (dir. Denys Arcand, 1989), but still to this day, few films have directly juxtaposed teenage alienation through public, continually moving spaces. The young characters in both halves of the film frame are shown in similar ways: in the first half, Louisette and Chantal are looking for parental figures, one in a suburban bus, the other on a boat. While the second half brings the two characters within the Montreal metro, with a sign indicating that they will soon end their lives. Both sequences use the city space to develop a parallel between its protagonists and the state of Quebec, with the metro being the cinematic element the film needed to convey this idea. The subway represents the father figure, as Micheline Lanctôt herself admits (Tadros, 9). This is not without coincidence, since Louisette’s father is himself a subway driver who has no communication with his daughter. The filmmaker goes even further by stating that the father, through his representation by being the metro itself, is responsible for the death of the girls (Ibid.): the modern environment would thus be the metaphor of the father figure inadvertently leading its child into an avoidable death.

The inability of Louisette and Chantal to communicate with the outside world also leads them to isolate themselves with their cassette players. The teenagers linger in a world that is not theirs by listening to the sounds they have recorded on a loop, from hours on end. While the outside world might be visually austere and hopeless (for example, the fact that public transport fits into this very modern idea that public commodities are only there to be strictly functional and straightforward, and not aesthetically pleasing or playful in any ways), sonically, it can be turned into whatever we want it to be. However, the metro’s sound is inescapable during the last sequence: the subway sounds go up to 18 tracks in postsync (Pérusse, 197), emitting an infernal sound invading the sound space from all frequencies. Throughout the aforementioned last sequence, a sound occurs wherever the girls may roam: a television, a radio… This sharply contrasts the first part of the film, where the protagonists had more control over the ambient sound. In other words, the individualistic landscape proclaims its presence by the use of sound. The ‘’sound alienation’’ is however, in some ways, under control – the metro, always precisely programmed, does not make any mistake per say.

The city is an end in itself – it does not care for its inhabitants, but it does not not care about them, either. These inhabitants are the ones who are being alienated. Their death is not a reaction to the metro itself; this place is merely a reflection of Louisette and Chantal’s lack of communication with the rest of the world. As Connie Tadros exposes, addressing to Micheline Lanctôt: “The girls are dying because of people’s failure to communicate while you, the filmmaker, are orchestrating the passage of the metros with their colors and rhythms into a technological set-piece […]’’ (Tadros, 9)

The characters keep being pushed away from the outside world: Chantal finds a father figure with a bus driver, but he is fired. Louisette finds her missing dad in a ship’s sailor, but he’s forced to go work abroad. Afterwards, surprisingly (or not?), no one comes to their rescue, nor even talks to them. The announcement of their impending doom goes unnoticed, and their bodies are not even found by the staff of the metro, a bunch of middle-age men blindsided by their upcoming strike.

Although we often identify and project ourselves within the lead character(s) of a certain narrative, I couldn’t do the same with Sonatine. While watching this final sequence, I realized that I wasn’t one of these young women, but rather, I was embodying that indifferent outside world, which were the background characters. I wasn’t one of the protagonists, because the film relegated me to embody that very world that alienated the characters to begin with. While I was still emotionally invested in Louisette and Chantal and could relate to their inability to speak in many ways, how could I pretend to be one of them, even just for 90 minutes, if I represented what caused them to be even more alienated in the first place? While I do agree that cinema, or art in general, could sometimes lends itself into a suspension of disbelief and therefore turns into a place in which I could potentially identify with someone that does not necessarily speak for me nor represent me in any way, the case of Sonatine is special since the film hits close to home on several levels. I was part of the suburbs, which were Longueuil and Saint-Lambert, where I grew up and went to high school, and I was that ugly metro, which I used to take every day to go to university. I couldn’t, and still can’t put a distance between the film narrative and my own, and ironically, this is why I can’t be one of these characters. In other words, the detached familiarity I’ve had with these public spaces is the reason why I can’t really identify with Louisette and Chantal, but rather with the unnamed, anonymous passerby. However, I need to thank the film for opening up my mind into a different type of spectatorial identification, where it can be more fluid, and where I can and can’t relate to someone’s experiences at the same time. 

Maybe we also have to thank Sonatine for opening up the gates of coming-of-age Québécois stories, and even more so coming-age-of films directed by women that feature female perspectives. Even though the accessibility of Sonatine is still relatively limited, its legacy can surely be felt on films like Une colonie (dir. Geneviève Dulude-De Celles, 2018), Inès (dir. Renée Beaulieu, 2021), La déesse des mouches à feu (dir. Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette, 2020),  Antigone (dir. Sophie Deraspe, 2019), and many others.

Works cited

Pérusse, Denise. ‘’La réception critique d’une œuvre singulière – Sonatine: attention, auteure à l’horizon!’’  Micheline Lanctôt – La vie d’une héroïne, L’Hexagone, 1995: pp.197.

Tadros, Connie. ‘’Sonatine: Film maudit. A Conversation With Director Micheline Lanctôt.’’ Cinema Canada, No 110, September 1984, pp.9.

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