Zombie film echoes
Quebec's cultural fears
Les affamés plays on the Québécois nightmare of being overrun by a hegemonic tribe, erasing its traditions and culture
What's with the accordion? I can't be the only one to have that thought while watching Les affamés (The Ravenous), Robin Aubert's new made-in-Quebec zombie film. One of the characters (played by Monia Chokri) lugs a big red accordion with her throughout the film. Even when a howling zombie horde is racing toward her, she won't run until that bulky instrument is strapped on her back.
Quebeckers love zombies as much as anyone else. They watch The Walking Dead on Netflix and turn out by the thousands to stalk through downtown Montreal on the city's annual Zombie Walk. This year's walk, which takes place on Oct. 28, is an official part of Montreal's 375th anniversary celebrations. You have to wonder what the city's pious founders would have made of that.
And yet Quebec's robust film industry has produced few zombie films. Aubert, who claims that Les affamés is the province's first big zombie feature, explains that the scene's roots in documentary and cinema direct steered filmmakers away from fantasy and genre filmmaking. Maybe; although science fiction and superheroes are what pay the bills for many who toil in Montreal's film industry.
In an interview in Le Devoir, Aubert claimed the high ground by saying that the refined look of Les affamés was influenced by the works of auteurs Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. Aubert's most striking auteur touch in his film is that his zombies have culture. When not chewing on people and making more zombies, they build towering altars from chairs, toys and other household objects. They seem to have religion, an aspect of life the film's small band of survivors reference only negatively, through curses such as câlisse.
Les affamés is set on the farms, fields, cabins, highways and forests of rural Quebec. The survivors cover a lot of ground, as Aubert toys with the question that drives every zombie film: Who's going to get it next, and how? Geography is important in this film, as it is, ultimately, to zombies. Aside from their hunger, the key thing about these ghouls is that they take space away from the unafflicted. They're hegemonic, colonizing monsters.
Imagine the Quebec homeland being overrun by a hegemonic tribe with its own culture, and its own irresistible method of converting the inhabitants into beings such as themselves. That is the worst Québécois nightmare, from the Conquest of 1759 to the arrival of niqabs on the streets of Montreal. The latest official expression of that fear is Bill 62, passed by the Quebec National Assembly on Oct. 18, which requires everyone to uncover their faces when receiving or giving government services.
Aubert's nuanced film is not a blatant sociopolitical allegory, although he leaves plenty of room for allegorical interpretation. As the zombie threat grows more intense, so do the loving references to the homiest aspects of Quebec life. Two elderly women with shotguns guard their cozy, unrenovated cottage from rocking chairs on the porch. When flight becomes the only option, they spend time debating which homemade preserves they should take along.
There's also that accordion, the one keepsake from home that must not be left behind. No one questions this cumbersome burden, or suggests that the odds of survival would improve without it. The accordion symbolizes the bedrock culture of Quebec, as a more convenient iPod would not. You could almost say that the survivors fight the zombies not just to stay alive, but to protect the accordion and all it represents. We don't know why Chokri's character, in an early scene, uses a map of Quebec to wipe blood spatters off her instrument's keys, but in retrospect the gesture makes perfect sense.
Les affamés has its philosophical moments, as well as brief anecdotes that are meant to give some depth to characters whose main narrative functions are to shoot, slash and run. These personal asides mostly have a stilted, schematic quality, despite the high quality of the cast. What no one discusses are the zombie altars – why they exist, what they mean and whether they might indicate a weak point in the invaders' makeup.
An American filmmaker would probably have the survivors lob a Molotov cocktail at one of those altars, just to see what would happen. Maybe the zombies would rush in to save it, incinerating themselves. Colonialism often involves an attack on the native religion. Les affamés could have offered a neat reversal.
There's a danger, however, in knowing too much about your colonizers. You might become more like them, and less like yourself. The survivors in Les affamés want to know only what they need to know to stay ahead of the zombies. Fear and suspicion outweigh curiosity.
If this is what Quebec's zombie nightmare looks like, it's tempting to speculate how other regions of Canada might express a local menace of the walking dead on film. In the case of British Columbia, we already know, from Fido, the 2006 feature directed by Andrew Currie. Fido is set in a picture-perfect, 1950s-style suburb (in real-life Kelowna), where domesticated zombies aid in perpetuating the good life.
Fido veers much harder into comedy than Les affamés, one of whose characters (played by Marc-André Grondin) relieves the tension with corny doctor jokes. But Fido also digs deeper into the family anguish of zombie films, in which the secondary nightmare is that you may have to blow the head off your zombie-fied mother or son.
Fido has a happy ending, which may be apt for a zombie movie set in a region seen by many Canadians as the ideal place for a peaceful retirement. Les affamés closes more ambiguously. Someone survives, but for how long? The threat is always out there. You have to stay vigilant.
Les affamés opened in Quebec on Friday.