17 May 2007 | Tabarnouche
Another, lesser known dimension to North American film-making
Le Matou (The Alley Cat) is an allegorical film in which youth, friendship, goodness, love, honesty, simplicity, perseverance, etc. a few Scout virtues are omitted ultimately beat out the jaded and seemingly invincible forces of the dark side. A struggling late-20-something couple in Montreal, supported by their friends and family and a rather unusual stranger, seize on a too-good-to-be-true opportunity to realize their dreams of having their own restaurant and, by happenstance, a family of convenience. Along the way improbable obstacles and challenges supervene but prove surmountable. The Alley Cat is comfortable, well cast and acted, and sometimes intriguing. The resolution is, in the main, satisfying, if foreseeable and low-key.
The theme may not be particularly novel, but there are one or two other-worldly plot devices that wouldn't be out of place in a Gabriel García Márquez epic. Story development will likely seem fresh to North American viewers who are not used to Quebec movie-making or the kind of Continental European films that are not usually screened in North America outside repertoire theatres. What is novel, though, is how the story develops without recurring to guns, murders, explosions, torture, drug abuse, invasions, exploitation, cruelty, ethnic and racial caricatures, cataclysms, or related cinematic staples that are now standard features of the Hollywood film template and, by inference, daily American life.
In fact, you'd almost think you were watching a film made in the 1930s rather than the 1980s. Viewers may get the distinct the impression that they're seeing a story that could actually happen to ordinary people of ordinary means (supernatural occurrences notwithstanding). Few films made in French, whether Québécois or European, slight the erotic, and here the sex scenes are tastefully done and not gratuitous. The Alley Cat, like other Québec films, reflects values of Québec society, where violence and aggressiveness are still considered rude rather than, as in films from English-speaking North America, justifiable adaptations to modern life. But for these very reasons, those who appreciate action over character development may find The Alley Cat pleasant enough, but too dull (i.e., too subtle).
For all the insight into French-speaking North America that The Alley Cat affords (including a brief tour of rural Québec), few will rank it with Québec masterpieces like The Barbarian Invasions, Léolo, or C.R.A.Z.Y. Some devices used to advance the story, particularly certain deus ex machina plot twists, are necessary to sustain the allegory, but they leave loose ends. Several critics believed Egon Ratablavasky to represent American wealth and interventionism, but compared with what the world has come to know under the Bush administration, the allegorical references are timid and unrecognizable.
The film itself takes no overt pro- or anti-American stance. Its focus is micro, personal, and subdued a bias that runs through many Québec films to the point that social and political features are all but incidental to plot and setting. Whereas the characters in The Alley Cat are believable and imminently likable the kind of folks you'd like to have in your own circle of friends the story itself lacks the pace and substance to make it memorable, other than as a glimpse into life in Montreal in the 1980s. Personable characters and exposure to the gentler society that lies a mere 60 km north of the U.S.-Canada border, however, are not negligible attributes in a film that offers respite from the eternal American quest for mind-bending blockbusters.
Do attempt to see The Alley Cat in its subtitled version rather than the dubbed version. Even if you don't understand French, you're likely to enjoy the contrast between the elegant informality and warm cadences of Québécois French, and the more familiar and impassioned French (of France) spoken by Julien Guiomar (as chef Aurelien Picquot) and the measured, precise European French of Jean Carmet (who played Egon Ratablavasky). If you read French, the book by Yves Beauchemin on which the film is based, though overly long and endowed with some of the same developmental defects, will dazzle you with its vivid narrative, perky dialogue, and apt description, without the self-conscious stylistic flourishes that often afflict French novelists.