“I think we’re alone now…: Genre Subversion in Le temps de l’avant

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Image credit: ONF

The idea of women alone without men is enough to generate fear. What will they talk about, what will they do, outside of the confines of social standards and the rules of powerful patriarchs? In films by men we see this frequently—often enough to create a loose semi-genre defined by Emily Yoshida as “women-alone-horrors”[i] or “persona swap films” by Miriam Bale.[ii] While such solo women scenarios can be the base of lighthearted comedy (think of Howard Hawks’ 1953 Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), women together in the horror/thriller vein usually lose touch with reality, lose their inhibitions, and lose their minds. In isolation, ostensibly inherent feminine instability is unleashed and chaos ensues, in the form of: insanity (Alfred Hitchock’s Rebecca or Robert Altman’s 3 Women); loss of personality (Ingmar Bergman did this brilliantly with Persona); nymphomania (look no further than Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac); and violence (see the prototypical Single White Female by Barbet Schroeder or La Cérémonie by Claude Chabrol). Taking up this semi-genre, however, Anne Claire Poirier challenges such patriarchal fears in her fiction feature debut, Le temps de l’avant (1975), and uses the trope to explore how women alone together create new, freer, and very necessary space.

Taking up this semi-genre, however, Anne Claire Poirier challenges such patriarchal fears in her fiction feature debut, Le temps de l’avant (1975), and uses the trope to explore how women alone together create new, freer, and very necessary space.

Middle-aged housewife Hélène (Luce Guilbeault) has found she is pregnant—again. The film opens as she and her chic friend Monique (Paule Baillargeon) are leaving the doctor’s office with an aura of heaviness. In the car, they discuss the inability of Hélène’s husband to understand the magnitude of this pregnancy and abortion, a taboo topic in then-Catholic-dominated Quebec.[iii] After the women separate, it becomes clear why this pregnancy isn’t welcome news: Hélène’s husband, Gabriel (Pierre Gobeil), returns home from his job as a sailor, and they spend his leave at a hotel, during which he behaves like a child. Hélène, having organized the romantic getaway—booking the hotel, paying out of pocket, and arranging for childcare, all labour that Gabriel takes for granted—acts perpetually acquiescent and soothing in the face of Gabriel’s hyperactive joys and his temper tantrums. To him, she is luxury, comfort, romance, and sex. To her, he is another baby to coddle, which she accepts and indulges fully.

With this sequence, Poirier foregrounds the unequal workings of heterosexual relationships (and marriage) before switching to a space for women. It’s here, when Monique and Hélène spend a night together alone after a party, that the intensity of the film increases to a fever pitch. The scene starts at the evening’s end: the children are put to bed and guests prepare to leave after a friend entertains with music, singing songs of wanting a life full of love, happiness, independence, and ambition. Winding down for the night, Monique is provocative during a discussion about men. When Hélène initially maintains that Gabriel isn’t like other men, Monique stops her: “No. We have to talk. That’s why I came. That’s why I’m here, Hélène.”

With a newfound visceral vulnerability brought on bluntly, Hélène is able to admit what little support she actually has from her husband, and how he does not appreciate the work she puts into maintaining their household—as well as how different her life is from her girlhood dreams of domestic bliss. Finally, she is able to be open about how it will be nearly impossible for her to maintain a healthy and happy life in their home if another child is brought in—something that she is unable to make Gabriel understand. Monique, for her part in this space, is able to empathize, and equally make her own confession: she recently had an abortion when she became pregnant by a non-committal lover, despite having wanted to carry the fetus to term. When Hélène asks Monique why she didn’t keep it, she candidly replies: “To not bother anyone.”

While Monique and Hélène’s night begins as a light conventional soirée, we have inklings of their underlying conflicts. Earlier, at the party, the songs the women listen to with their guests evoke their feelings—“I want to live in the sun,” sings one guest—but they do not outright express their needs. Alone in the dark of night, however, Monique and Hélène reflect on the harsh realities and passive hints hidden in melodies, articulating them without poetry or softness. In this space, these women are able to speak their fears, anxieties, and heartbreaks in a way which is not otherwise allowed. Without having to sidestep their truths, it is their isolation which liberates them.

Without having to sidestep their truths, it is their isolation which liberates them.

Within an aesthetically conventional film, Poirier shoots this exchange between Hélène and Monique with high contrast. The quotidian brightness of other sequences is replaced with an intoxicating atmosphere, near-expressionistic in the way the high tensions come forth in shadows and colour, which paint the scene as a purposeful portrait rather than a naturalistic depiction of life in 1970s Canada. In claustrophobic darkness (the magic of night completed by a whimsical harp soundtrack that the two women play on a record), the women are freed from the social constraints that restrict them. “Menstruation, the pill, abortion…” Hélène says, “Men don’t like to talk about them.” In earlier scenes, Hélène avoids these and related subjects with her husband; when she begins opening up about her stresses to him, he falls asleep as she speaks. Now, instead, the most raw, unabashed conversations take place fearlessly. Like the melodramas where women alone come undone, Poirier is equally intent on a breaking of her characters.

But though the sequence is shot with an otherworldly aura (night illuminated by stray candles and small lamps, the women shadowy around the edges as if emerging from a horror film), the hysteria here is realistically feminist. If hysteria is an outburst of emotions largely associated with the feminine, this is exactly what Poirier depicts: outburst of anger, sadness, and anxiety, unrestrained in a manner not accepted outside of the confines of the two women’s relationship, relating specifically to the social issues which attack them. Monique and Hélène come undone from the social stigma which binds them into complacent gendered roles.

Hélène, spending time alone with Monique, the more radical woman, has her own ideas about gender and sexuality brought forth—and her ultimate fear of patriarchy is realized. That which was repressed in platitudes and hopes comes bubbling to the surface with a ferocity. And, after that night, Hélène is changed. As though possessed by Monique, Hélène is able to frankly discuss her needs with Gabriel. In a very different scene, she expresses her thoughts, her needs, and his neglect. But where Monique and Hélène were shot facing each other, or both looking in the same direction in a visualisation of their shared understanding, Gabriel and Hélène are back to back, symbolic of their disconnection. It is not surprising, then, that Gabriel does not understand her, expressing disappointment in his wife and anger at her desire for an abortion.

Though at the base they feel the same (this is not what they expected married life to be), their feelings have different roots: Hélène thought marriage would be a romantic partnership, while Gabriel thought it meant unconditional support of his dreams (of a large family, of an adventurous career), regardless of how his actions or desires impact others. Hélène’s transformation into a woman who stands her ground is repulsive to Gabriel: to him it is a new insanity rather than rational self-preservation. Fed up, he storms off. Mired in the domestic (she stays in their kitchen, cares for their children), and without Monique’s support, Hélène regresses to her socially-acceptable maternal role.

When the women spend the night alone, Poirier creates the atmosphere of a gothic horror. Chiaroscuro lighting on faces emoting repressed anger, the passion between two women towards their shared cause, the fear they express for themselves living within a patriarchal society, and the transformation that, finally, occurs make the scene one of almost supernatural sensibilities—rather than discussing abortion, they might have been telling ghost stories. But instead of taking the route of showing this scene as one of an evil folie a deux, Poirier takes up the characteristics of the “women alone genre” for her own articulation of the political issue of abortion. Women lose touch with the reality of social stigma as they open up, sexuality is brought to the surface as they shuck their embarrassment in discussing pleasure, needs, and pressures, and even violence comes forth in the form of critiques of anti-abortion activism, which, to them, condemns women forced to give birth to a kind of death in their subjugation to the home and family.

This in turn relates largely to Poirier’s oeuvre-arching focus on maternal labour. In They Called Us ‘Les Filles du Roy’ , her 1974 documentary, we see women’s work in different facets. Secretaries, sex workers, and mothers are all placed on the same level, each performing work, sometimes constant, for a boss figure. In Le temps de l’avant, that figure is Gabriel, a man who does not provide acceptable wages or support for the work he demands, nor does he have realistic ideas of what kind of work is feasible for his “employee.” In They Called Us ‘Les Filles du Roy’ we see women forced to work overtime, putting up with harsh labour conditions, and being generally exploited to make a living wage—whether that is in an office or in the kitchen. Hélène, radicalized, is able to perceptively detail the way in which her housework is labour, the way that her wages are insufficient, and the extent to which she is worn down by the unending nature of the work she does.

Hélène, radicalized, is able to perceptively detail the way in which her housework is labour, the way that her wages are insufficient, and the extent to which she is worn down by the unending nature of the work she does.

Unlike Gabriel, who is able to follow his passion and chase his dreams as a sailor, Hélène is crushed down by perpetual and thankless work for little benefit. And until she was given that space with Monique, she wasn’t able to speak this truth.

But to contrast these two films is to illustrate very different approaches in looking at women’s roles in 1970s Canada. They Called Us ‘Les Filles du Roy’, an experimental documentary, features blunt depictions of labour. Banal and mechanical, all work comes with a weariness and a necessity. Without having to so much as say it, through the images we see we are made to understand domestic labour as work. Footage of childcare or food preparation is paired with typing in an office, clearing dishes at a restaurant, or dancing in a bar. While work outside the home comes with financial necessity, the domestic is still presented, very seriously, as a necessary work to keep the home running, with the curse of this labour never breaking after hours.

The way Poirier deals with domestic labour in narrative is vastly different in Le temps de l’avant. Coming at the issue within fiction, she is able to reach it by storytelling: the introduction of Hélène’s complacent life, the climax of her political awakening, and the denouement of her relegation to that labour she sought to improve. Making the same point, in fiction, Poirier does not avoid clear and explicit discussions of the issues at hand, but she does craft them in a way which shows us outside perspectives: where the husbands’ and fathers’ roles are unspoken (a knowing absence) in They Called Us ‘Les Filles du Roy’, Gabriel in Le temps de l’avant comes across loud and clear in his own reception of Hélène’s needs. In showing both sides, without relenting when it comes to her argument, Poirier makes her point stronger by showing what Hélène is—and what many women are—up against more clearly.

Taking up a sexist generic trope, Poirier demonstrates the way everything is working against her two protagonists, but also not backing down in her perspective. For her fiction feature, women must exist alongside interpretations which are not favourable to them: Hélène must accept when her needs are taken as selfish cruelty by Gabriel, but fighting against narrative convention, she is able to find ways to express herself, if only briefly. Isolation can be shot as frightening and intense, but also provides a safety and barrier from the outside. Hysteria can be a condemnation and an uncomfortable excess, but it becomes a necessity when women have so little time to truly express themselves. Poirier takes a narrative space of sexist horror and carves it out as a shelter against those who fear it. Fighting against society, Monique and Hélène also fight against fiction—Poirier makes a double point on the place of women, progressing from her earlier film to create a fuller portrait which manipulates the arts of men to critique them.

Chelsea Phillips-Carr is a writer based in Toronto. You can read her work here: chelseaphillipscarr.com

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FOOTNOTES

[i] Yoshida, Emily. “What Persona Is Still Teaching Us About Women Onscreen, 50 Years Later.” Vulture, May 12, 2017. http://www.vulture.com/2017/05/persona-and-the-persistent-horror-of-women-alone-together.html

[ii] Bale, Miriam. “PERSONA SWAP PT. 1: PAST.” Joan’s Digest, 2012. http://www.joansdigest.com/issue-2/persona-swap-pas-by-miriam-bale

[iii] While abortion was legalized in Canada in 1969, it came with the condition that a team of doctors had to sign off on the procedure, deeming it necessary to the patient’s physical and mental well-being. In the landmark 1988 Supreme Court case R. v. Morgentaler, the 1969 law was ruled as unconstitutional and was struck down, granting women free access to abortion. Thus, when Poirier was filmming, though abortion was technically legal, it came with structural barriers which made it extremely difficult for a woman to obtain “permission” for an abortion.

Chelsea Phillips-Carr is a writer based in Toronto. You can read her work here: chelseaphillipscarr.com