Review of Cinemania Festival’s opening film Chien Blanc
Acclaimed author and filmmaker Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette brought forth her new film Chien Blanc as the opening film of the 28th edition of the Cinemania Festival.
Her 2015 novel La Femme qui fuit received a lot attention owing to its second-person narration of Lavalette’s grandmother’s life.
Because of the acclaim she received from her novel and the various films she has made in the past such as Nelly, from the novel Putain by author Nelly Arcan, it was fair to have high expectations for this release.
Cinemania hopes to bring francophone cinema to an international spotlight and help these films achieve recognition. For this year’s edition of the festival, organizers hoped to engage audiences with relevant socio-political issues. The festival’s country of honour this year is Luxembourg, which will bring the country’s French cinema and culture to the foreground.
Beyond film screenings, the festival also organizes roundtables, conferences, concerts and an exhibit at the PHI Centre.
Chien Blanc was a result of Barbeau-Lavalette questioning her identity as a white person. For many, the murder of George Floyd in 2020 was a reality check. It brought more awareness to the struggles of people of colour — and for Barbeau-Lavalette, this awareness translated into a historical film.
“This is not a documentary,” states Lavalette in the Q&A session. The film, however, is composed in parallel to the narrative of archival footage of Black struggles from the Civil Rights movement of 1954-68 to the Black Lives Matter protests from last year.
It is controversial that, though a Canadian artist herself, Barbeau-Lavalette chose to depict racism in the U.S.but ignored similar racist trends in her own province of Quebec, whose prime minister openly stated that “systemic racism does not exist.”
Even though the film only has a runtime of ninety minutes, it seems to drag on much longer. This was in part due to the awkward editing. The audience barely had the opportunity to draw breath after dramatic scenes before the narration would quickly resume.
It is noticeable that Barbeau-Lavalette does not come from a filmmaking background. The metaphors used in the film were too on-the-nose, and provided little credibility.
For instance, the first scene shows a boy playing with a toy dog, foreshadowing the upcoming story with a dog as the central character. In another instance, Romain Gary (author of the original novel Chien Blanc) writes the last words of his book, which seems to symbolize the universal finality of racism. He writes with pen on paper in the film as a metaphor of the final words of his novel.
Barbeau-Lavalette touches upon the themes of white tears, but does not give them much depth. In a scene at the beginning of the film, a taxi driver is bringing Romain Gary to his home when we hear the news of Martin Luther King’s murder on the radio. Romain Gary overpays the driver — a direct symbol of white tears that Barbeau-Lavalette herself noted in the Q&A as “overcompensating his guilt by paying.”
Strong metaphors can enhance a storyline, but in this case they felt forced — as if they were trying to entirely manipulate the audience’s experience rather than giving them a chance to think for themselves.
The film does not flow very well as there are abrupt switches between images that make it, at times, an uncomfortable experience to watch.
Though her initial claim of making the film about what it means to be a white ally is interesting, the angle she has taken in Chien Blanc only serves to further divide. A better angle to take would’ve been centring more Black voices, for instance. Characters like Ballard who Gary gets out of prison, seemed central to the story during the initial scenes were only shown briefly.
Overall, the film was an interesting visual experience. The Cinema Imperial seating 800 people was entirely full. The audience was a diverse group that included school-going children and teenagers who would applaud at the end of every scene and laugh whenever an intimate scene would pop up on the screen.
Though Anaïs Barbeau-Lavalette is known for her prose, and the film is an accurate adaptation of Romain Gary’s novel Chien Blanc, I’m not sure that filmmaking is the best avenue for her talents.