Isabel (1968) is the first of Paul Almond's trilogy of films (the others being Act of the Heart and Journey) made with Geneviève Bujold, his wife at the time. It was one of the first Canadian features to be picked up for distribution by a major Hollywood studio (Paramount Pictures). The film launched Bujold into Hollywood movies and sparked international interest in Canada's fledgling film industry. It was voted one of the 10 best films of 1968 by several US critics and Almond was nominated by the Directors Guild of America for best director.
Bujold plays a young woman who returns to her hometown in Gaspé, Que to face the death of her mother and upsetting memories of domestic violence, incest and the mysterious death of her grandfather. Her father and brother died at sea, and the film's narrative unfolds through an elliptical stream of haunting episodes, including visions of her mother and grandfather, as Isabel is driven toward insanity.
The film's cinematography, by Georges Dufaux, perfectly mirrors the young woman's feelings with its dark, foggy Gaspé landscapes. Isabel is partly about internalized, psychic repression and partly a ghost story, and Almond's reluctance to situate the film in either genre infuriated many, who called it pretentious and overwrought. Nevertheless, the stylistic choice is clearly one of the film's many strengths.
Isabel is one of Bujold's first English-speaking roles, and she turns in a fine, terrified performance, supported by Al Waxman, Marc Strange and Gerard Parkes. Her young face is luminous and lovingly framed by Almond.
Isabel won 4 Canadian Film Awards in 1968, for best actor, actress, cinematography and editing, and is now widely regarded as a Canadian classic.