Apropos of nothing, I saw two completely divergent Canadian films in the last couple of days. There was the recent, Anglo, and hilariously awful Desolation Sound; and there was the 1981, Quebecois, and awesomely brilliant Les bons debarras. Almost nothing linked the two: the first was standard Eng-Can time-killing about murder and repressed houswives in a chilly rural setting, and the other extraordinary Francophone cruelty by a wilful and manipulative 'tween (in a chilly rural setting). But though the self-doubting hausfrau and the self-absorbed thirteen-year-old had nothing in common, they illustrated the two poles of a very Canadian conundrum: that of the essential destructiveness of desire, and the problem of what to do about it.
Desolation Sound takes the austere high ground in the debate. Its protagonist is the uptight Canadian bourgeoise of legend, here played by Helene Joy, who lives out in the woods and draws bad illustrations- when she feels like it. She's bored with her husband, her daughter, her life, but of course, she'll live to eat her words. When her "friend from childhood" (Jennifer Beals!) comes back to be sexy, drink, behave badly, and say highly punishable things like "it takes courage to be selfish", it's like an invitation to divine retribution: they naturally squabble when Beals shtups Joy's newly-perked-up hubby, resulting in Beals falling off the roof and croaking.
But the death doesn't break the evil-fun spell. Simply wishing Beals' presence into the household is worthy of Old Testament wrath, and so the newly-kaput free spirit reaches from beyond the grave: after burying the body in the rose garden, Joy starts assuming her "friend from childhood's" identity, which threatens to tear the very fabric of her life apart (i.e., she sleeps with Ed Begley, Jr.). The film then tries to keep the crime a secret while Joy tries to purge her newfound Beals-ness, presumably in the name of God and the Her Majesty, the Queen.
What's important here is not that wanting certain things is bad: wanting anything is bad. Desire itself is suspect- if you want more than you've got, you're a sinner who will cause irreparable harm. And this is one of the quintessential patterns of Canadian film, one that we inherited from the hated John Grierson and never purged even when we threw him by the wayside. If you are not conventionally productive, or better yet, lying still, you are out causing harm. No middle ground.
Les bons debarras counters with a messed-up family that satisfies its desires all day, every day. Chief amongst them is Manon, the pubescent spitfire who loves her mother possessively and constantly tries to isolate her from other influences. Manon hates the cop who's sleeping with Mother; Mom's feeble-minded brother (who deals with his isolation by downing endless two-fours of Molson's); school; being interrupted by reading; etc. Daughter wants mother all to herself; Mom wants to coddle her by giving in (though Manon drives her crazy); Brother wants to deal with his sexual frustration by cutting out at all hours to get pissed; and various townies and ex-lovers of mom vent their spleens and libidos in loud and obnoxious ways.
No doubt about it, this is one painful movie. But instead of raining moralistic ash on the central, monstrous Manon (who does things that ennoble the word "selfish"), the film holds on her with something approaching awe. Manon is merciless, but attractive- her total lack of superego makes her destructive, but it's the kind of scorched earth you like to watch Godzilla leave behind. And when this movie ends, [*spoiler warning*] it's not with just desserts for the holy terror: she hangs up a tragic phone call, crawls into bed with mom, and the movie ends. She is a destroyer, but destruction hangs around her like a nimbus.
Yet, in its inverted sort of way, Les bons debarras agrees with Desolation Sound: it says that to succumb to desire is to succumb to selfish destruction. Even the hapless brother, whose thwarted sex drives end up in drink and harrassment, acts out all over the place and winds up causing havoc. It doesn't judge him, but it comes to the same factual conclusion, simply approaching things amorally rather than with righteous wrath. (Manon has enough of the latter for all of us).
And though I'd expansively say that Les bons debarras is the finest Canadian film and one of the 50 or so best films of the '80s, it still holds the seeds of the Great Northern Problem. You either live in moral misery, or glorious destruction; there's no compromise that might solve the problem, that might regulate desire and release tension at the same time, that might exert the give and take of id and superego colliding to form a fully-functioning self. And it's here that Canada starts to seem as simplistic and black-and-white as the Southern neighbour it so loves to decry.
I propose that Canadian filmmakers (and intellectuals in general) had better start working out this master plan. We can't decide how to organize society if we can't have the one we want- if we define wanting something better as selfish arrogance and gratification as instant destruction. As Peter Wollen wrote, to achieve any change, one has to be able to desire it; and to desire it one has to see desire as an attractive quality. Anything else is to succumb to smug frustration and deny the root of our oft-denied internal problems.