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Quebec's acclaimed 'Gabrielle' seeks English audience after festival fanfare

Film director Louise Archambault poses for photographers after her film, "Gabrielle" was named as Canada's entry for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, Tuesday, September 24, 2013 in Montreal. Amid all the critical acclaim and early Oscar buzz that has followed her coming-of-age tale "Gabrielle," Archambault says her proudest moments have come from the heartfelt reactions of families and filmgoers who see themselves onscreen.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz
January 08, 2014 - 12:20 PM

TORONTO - Amid all the critical acclaim and early Oscar buzz that has followed her coming-of-age tale "Gabrielle," filmmaker Louise Archambault says her proudest moments have come from the heartfelt reactions of families and filmgoers who see themselves onscreen.

The Quebec writer/director says she's blown away by praise from people coping with issues similar to those of her spunky heroine, a young woman with Williams syndrome who yearns for independence and a shot at love.

"This week I was at the Palm Springs film festival and at the end a woman came to me and she has Williams syndrome and she looks like Gabrielle so much," Archambault said Wednesday during a stop in Toronto to promote the film's English Canada release.

"And she was like, 'I cannot thank you enough to make that film, you really touched exactly the way I feel.' And then her family came — her brother and parents — and they were crying and laughing and ... the parents are like: 'It's our family that you've (captured) there.'"

The francophone film stars newcomer Gabrielle Marion-Rivard — who actually has Williams syndrome, a genetic condition marked by a strong social personality and aptitude for music — as a gifted singer who develops a romantic relationship with a similarly challenged young man as their special needs choir prepares for a big concert.

Their fellow choir members were drawn from a Montreal performing arts centre for those with special needs, who Archambault says brought a much-appreciated naturalism to the scenes.

Not that it didn't take some effort to get there.

Archambault admitted to "a lot of work beforehand" including script rewrites and many rehearsals to get her rookie actors comfortable in front of a camera.

"I didn't know if I would hire them but then again, I loved them so much I said, 'OK, I'll let go of many things, the way I work,' " she said of the film, which comes from the same Montreal-based producers as the Oscar-nominated "Incendies" and "Monsieur Lazhar."

"All the non-professional actors, they kept their real first name so I could improvise. So sometimes I would shoot and then continue shooting after the script.... And the camera was moving all the time, mostly because the non-professional actors with mental challenges, they're curious and they want to look at the camera all the time. So I had really to find ways to adjust."

"I really was in a state of letting go and to accept that it won't be perfect. And then, after that (I found) the people with whom I work, they are so authentic and so true."

"Gabrielle" was Canada's submission to the Academy Awards for consideration in the best foreign-language film category but failed to make a recent short list of nine films.

Nevertheless, Archambault said the attention has helped the film, which has scored distribution in the United States.

"Of course, if you're selected to the Oscars it means that you have a broader audience. It's wonderful when a film can travel as much," said Archambault, noting the buzz has also raised her own profile as a filmmaker.

"I got some offers from abroad and I read some things but I already have some projects — I have some projects in English and of course in French, and so will it help (my career). I'll tell you in a year, I guess."

Steady critical acclaim has included an audience award at the Locarno film festival and a best supporting actor prize from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle for Alexandre Landry, who plays love interest Martin.

During a round of interviews at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, he and a beaming Marion-Rivard recounted an intense shooting schedule that nevertheless included a lot of laughs.

And although Marion-Rivard appears to share a lot of similarities with her driven character, the 24-year-old admitted to being more than content to live with her mother rather than seek the bold independence of her alter ego.

But she nevertheless caught the acting bug in a big way, responding with an enthusiastic "Oui!" when asked if she enjoyed being a movie star, adding in French that she loves movies and has long dreamt of becoming an actress.

Meanwhile, Archambault said she's eager to pursue several new projects, including an English-language debut written by film and TV star Paul Gross.

She says "After the End" is based on an English play of the same name by Dennis Kelly. It centres on two people largely confined to a bunker following a terrorist attack.

"It's really about men and women and how do they survive one another?" Archambault said of the project, slated to shoot in Toronto and Hamilton with post-production in Montreal.

"I'm very excited, actually. I love the project, I love the script and it's really a character-driven film," she added. "For me it's a challenge but it's a wonderful challenge and I think for the actors would be quite meaty as well."

She said Gross adapted the play but he won't be in the film. She said she connected immediately to the "Passchendaele" filmmaker and "Slings and Arrows" star when they first met to discuss the project.

"I met quite a few screenwriters and he was the one. He sensed something with those characters and it was interesting. And I think my French side and his English side, we had a lot of exchange, and I think we did help and nourish (each other)."

"Gabrielle" heads to Toronto and Ottawa this weekend, Edmonton on Jan. 17 and Vancouver and Winnipeg on Jan. 24.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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