Quebec Film History: 1970 to 1989

This entry presents an overview of Québec cinema, from the burgeoning of a distinctly Québec cinema in the 1970s, to the production explosion that followed Denys Arcand’s Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986). It highlights the most important films, whether in terms of box office success or international acclaim, and covers both narrative features and documentaries. It also draws attention to an aspect of filmmaking that still has difficulty finding its place: women's cinema.

Denys Arcand,

This article is one of three that surveys the history of the film industry in Quebec. The entire series includes: Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969; Quebec Film History: 1970 to 1989; Quebec Film History: 1990 to Present

Documentary and Fiction of the 1970s

The documentary movement in Quebec began to falter at the beginning of the 1970s. This was partly because some of its practitioners (Jean-Claude Labrecque, Bernard Gosselin, and especially Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx) turned to fiction filmmaking.

In 1967, Brault made his first solo feature film, Entre la mer et l'eau douce. It was influenced by his long apprenticeship as a cameraman and producer. With Les Ordres (1974), Brault once again put documentary skills at the service of fiction. His reconstruction of Quebec under the War Measures Act during the October Crisis perfectly combined the flexibility, improvisation and attention to detail of direct cinema with the dramatic progression and structured narrative of fiction.

Groulx, on the other hand, went in the opposite direction. In both style and content, he offered a clear personal statement for discussion and criticism. Three features illustrate his methodology: Où êtes-vous donc? (1969), Entre tu et vous (1969) and 24 heures ou plus (1972). His films illustrated his mastery at integrating documentary and fiction at the editing stage.

Fiction filmmaking moved away from direct cinema and won new adherents for a second reason. In 1967, the CFDC was born, and with it, avenues of financing. The next year, Denis Héroux. released Valérie, Quebec’s first erotic film — and first commercial success. These two factors opened the way for commercial filmmaking and explain the production boom of the 1970s. Quebec had its various waves, such as “Maple Syrup porno” (including Claude Fournier’s box-office hit Deux femmes en or, 1970), subtle comedies and thrillers.

But this boom in commercial films soon ran into trouble. The situation was made even worse by foreign control of the distribution sector. Some commercial films overcame the problems of quality versus commercial viability. Gilles Carle knew how to lace his films with humour and sex, ideology and social colour, showmanship and stars. He made them much more interesting than most of the others in his field. With his fifth feature, La Vraie Nature de Bernadette (1972), Carle won lasting international acclaim.


Others also knew how to combine quality with commercial success. The best known is probably Denys Arcand. His Réjeanne Padovani (1973) and Gina (1974) blended social observation and colour with perfect artistic harmony. Claude Jutra won acclaim for his NFB film Mon oncle Antoine (1971), one of the finest Quebec films ever made. He did not have the same commercial success with Kamouraska (1973), an expensive co-production based on the celebrated novel by Anne Hébert. A number of other NFB producers (Marcel Carrière, Perron, Godbout and others) made films that could scarcely be distinguished from private ones. The trailblazer of this kind was Jean Beaudin’s tender and simple period film, J.A. Martin, photographe (1976).

Jean Pierre Lefebvre dominated the genre of the personal statement film for 15 years, with 18 important features to his credit. His work evolved from two fundamental approaches to filmmaking. The first was social, concrete, reflective and critical. The second was abstract, symbolic and intimate. Jacques Leduc, who concentrated on nondramatic moments of daily life and the state of the soul, belonged to that same generation of filmmakers. His work, marginal yet high-profile, belonged both to direct cinema (On est loin du soleil, 1970) and to fiction (Chronique de la vie quotidienne, 1973–78).

Also in the 1970s, some young filmmakers concentrated more on individual, even marginal, problems than on social ones. Some excelled at films for children, such as André Melançon. Others went happily from fiction to documentary, such as Jean Chabot and Roger Frappier. Some were more traditional, more narrative. One of the best of these was Francis Mankiewicz (Les Bons Débarras, 1980). Three names dominated what was then the fringe of this generation: André Forcier (four features, including Bar salon, 1973), Jean-Guy Noël (three features, including Ti-cul Tougas, 1976) and Pierre Harel (two features).

The films of these filmmakers were produced or co-produced by the Association coopérative de productions audio-visuelles. It received funding from the IQC for shorts and first features. This production by young people assured Quebec cinema a vitality and creativity it otherwise would have lacked. This was especially true in fiction, which had been dominated for years by large established companies. An exception to this is the astonishing Les Plouffe (1981) by Gilles Carle, in which historical authenticity is matched by emotional accuracy.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, direct cinema films once again became the best part of Quebec cinema. This was primarily due to the work of the veterans. Perrault made two major film cycles on Abitibi and the Montagnais-Naskapi (including Pays de la terre sans arbre ou le Mouchouânipi, 1980). Gosselin, Brault, André Gladu and a few others directed films that mixed ethnology, pop culture and nationalism. Michel Moreau made several films with a pedagogic and ideological bent. Lamothe’s two social and political series about Indigenous life and culture (Carcajou et le péril blanc, 1973–76; Innu asi, 1979–80; Mémoire battante, 1983). And Georges Dufaux, a director-cameraman of sensitivity and humanity, made notable films about old age, health, education and China.

Carle, Gilles

Emergence of Female Filmmakers

A group of female filmmakers within the NFB produced En tant que femmes (1973–74), a series of films, both documentary and fictional, about issues that concerned women. Women had very recently found their voice in Quebec cinema with the appearance of Anne Claire Poirer’s De mère en fille (1968), the first feature film made by a woman in Quebec. It was followed by the first feature privately made by a woman, Mireille Dansereau’s La Vie rêvée (1972).

The NFB series encouraged film production by women. Dansereau now has ten feature films to her credit, while Poirier has eight (including the famous Mourir à tue-tête, 1979, about the psychological, social and political implications of rape). Filmmakers such as Louise Carré, Paule Baillargeon, Micheline Lanctôt and Léa Pool explored new and unexpected paths in fiction. Direct cinema films began to explore uncharted territory (e.g., sexism, domestic work, the couple, violence, racism) with the work of Luce Guilbeault, Hélène Girard, Diane Létourneau, Tahani Rached and others. The work was much more important than its numerical output would indicate, and was a sign of awakening, renewal and dynamism.

1980s Slump

As the 1980s began, Quebec cinema was again in crisis. The number of private productions was declining dangerously. Even the NFB faced cutbacks. Filmmakers with high hopes for the Québec Film Act of 1975 were disillusioned by the government’s turn towards building an industry and away from nurturing a national culture. In 1983, the Québec Cinema Act was amended. The IQC was replaced by the Société générale du cinéma (SGC, now SODEC), which kept only its consultative and research mandates. The CFDC (now Telefilm Canada) and the SGC were mainly interested in a profitable, commercial film industry based on international markets. They leaned heavily in this direction with the films of the tax shelter era. (See also: Canadian Film History: 1939 to 1973.) However, this is not always compatible with filmmakers’ definitions of a national film industry. Direct and documentary filmmaking decreased, even at the NFB.

The film genre that most clearly reflected the conflict between the commercial interests of the industry, and the artistic and political concerns of filmmakers, was the documentary. Some documentarians explored the latest trends, such as combining non-fiction and fiction (Paul Tana, Tahani Rached, Richard Boutet). Others moved more toward autobiography (Jacques Leduc, Jean Pierre Lefebvre, Marilù Mallet, Jean Chabot, Sylvie Groulx). Some took an experimental approach (Fernand Bélanger). Others, such as Jean-Claude Labrecque, André Gladu, Serge Giguère, Marcel Simard, Jean-Daniel Lafond and Richard Lavoie, to name only a few, took a standard approach to cultural and social topics.

Quebec filmmaking in the early 1980s was typified by fewer productions, money problems, higher costs, unemployment, and huge productions with international content. Fiction films were hitting a new low. Some associated this with the backlash and depression that followed the failed 1980 referendum on Quebec’s sovereignty-association with Canada.

Léa Pool
Léa Pool, réalisatrice du film Hotel Chronicles, 1990.

1980s Renaissance

By the mid-1980s, however, a few films came out that reversed this trend. The huge success, at home and abroad, of Denys Arcand’s Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986) and Jésus de Montréal (1989) are the most striking examples.

Inspired by Arcand, older filmmakers caught a second wind. Jacques Leduc reached a new maturity with Trois pommes à côté du sommeil (1988) and La vie fantôme (1992). André Forcier mixed realism, poetry and magic better than ever (Kalamazoo, 1988; Une histoire inventée, 1990; Le vent du Wyoming, 1994). Unlike other retired filmmakers who turned to television or were having difficulty financing their projects, Forcier persevered. He completed, often with budget problems, original works that were imbued with the absurd, fantastical and the imaginary. Je me souviens (2009) and Coteau Rouge (2011) returned to the social fantastical and imaginary realism that were part of his work 30 years earlier. These films cemented Forcier’s status as one of Quebec’s most original and surprising directors.

The emergence of talented new directors also breathed life into production. These filmmakers included: Yves Simoneau (Pouvoir intime, 1981; Dans le ventre du dragon, 1989); Léa Pool (La femme de l'hôtel, 1984; Anne Trister, 1986; À corps perdu, 1988; La demoiselle sauvage, 1991); Jean-Claude Lauzon (Un zoo la nuit, 1987; Léolo, 1992); Jean Beaudry and François Bouvier (Jacques et Novembre, 1984; Les Matins infidèles, 1989); and Pierre Falardeau (Elvis Gratton, 1985; Octobre, 1994).

This period also saw the emergence of a new genre in Quebec cinema: films for children. The series Contes pour tous, produced by Rock Demers, involved such notable directors as André Melançon (with his classic La guerre des tuques, 1984), Michael Rubbo and Jean Beaudry. Certain films in this series were co-productions. This method of financing became increasingly common at the NFB, in private industry, at the IQC, the CFDC and on television. Films for children opened the door for another important director, Roger Cantin, who specialized in fantasy movies (Matusalem, 1993; La forteresse suspendue, 2001).


The crisis in Quebec film during this period was not one of creativity or quality but of production. Commercial practices in the 1980s and 1990s went off in all directions. Francophones directed films in English hoping to penetrate the international market, and television became a regular, if not committed, production partner. This explains the production of several telefilms and long feature films that were turned into series. These included Carle’s Les Plouffe (1981), Claude Fournier’s Bonheur d'occasion (1982) and Jean Beaudin’s Le Matou (1985). It became increasingly common to find film directors making popular television series.

This article is one of three that surveys the history of the film industry in Quebec. The entire series includes: Quebec Film History: 1896 to 1969; Quebec Film History: 1970 to 1989; Quebec Film History: 1990 to Present

See also: Cinémathèque Québécoise;Canadian Film History: 1896 to 1938; Canadian Film History: 1939 to 1973; Canadian Film History: 1974 to Present; Canadian Film History: Notable Films and Filmmakers 1980 to Present; Exhibit Eh: Canadian Film History in 10 Easy Steps; Documentary Film;Canadian Film Animation;Experimental Film; Film Distribution;National Film Board of Canada;Telefilm Canada; Top 10 Canadian Films of All Time; Canadian Feature Films;Film Education;Film Festivals; Film Censorship;Film Cooperatives;The Craft of Motion Picture Making.


Further Reading

  • Joseph I. Donohoe, Jr. ed., Essays on Québec Cinema (1991).
  • Bill Marshall, Québec National Cinema (2000).
  • Pierre Véronneau and Piers Handling, eds., Self Portrait: Essays on the Canadian and Québec Cinemas (1980).
  • Scott Mackenzie, Screening Québec: Québécois Moving Images, National Identity, and the Public Sphere (2004).