“Esimésac” - A Mythical Québec Collective Defeats Railroad Industrialization

By Robert K. Stephen on June 16, 2013

Esimesac has bizarre elements of “Mad Max”, “The Exorcist” and Monty Python’s “The Life of Brian”. Suffice to say it’s a Quebec quasi-mythical film possibly set in the First World War era but with mythology past and present intertwined it could be “anytime”. And there are no clear temporal boundaries here which make it all the more transcendent. Pay attention to the two appearances of the Quebec flag. With increasing industrialization the flag looks much more tattered in its second appearance.

esimesac.jpgOn the surface and in a superficial fashion it is a story about abject poverty in a Quebec village, St. Elie de Caxton and the suffering of its malnourished inhabitants as they struggle to survive with no promise or hope of economic survival. Nothing grows in their soil and there is no local economy aside from the blacksmith surviving by manufacturing bombshells for the “war effort” and the local depanneur that faces the emptying hourglass of commercial sustainability by extending credit and ample amounts of beer and spirits. On a deeper level it’s the classic Marxist study on the decline of the serf, rise of the industrial proletariat, the clinging and self seeking petit-bourgeoisie and the owners of the means of production, which in this case is the “Railroad”. It is also a study on pride and ego somewhat along the lines of Max Weber’s “ The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism “.  Most importantly it is a testament, however mythical, to a small village collective mentality that stands united, along with the Catholic priest, against a creeping industrialization symbolized by the “Railroad” being built throughout Quebec. Lurking on the surface in a deceptive fashion is a vague and undefined sense of nationalism. The collective will defeating a “foreign element” symbolized by the “Railroad” but of course in these days of modern Quebec the symbolism of the “Railroad” may be a bit interchangeable with other demons.

The beauty and depth of the film may rest far apart from the pervasive political symbolism and be dialed in to the portrayal of the human character. Esimesac is an inhabitant of this dirt poor village who has no shadow and correspondingly no ego as he rallies the villagers to initiate a collectivization of their agricultural system but gradually abandons this socialistic project to work with Riopel the blacksmith who is manufacturing spikes and rail for the developing railroad who has advised him a railway station will be built in St. Elie de Caxton if Riopel can manufacture enough rail and spike. Poor Riopel is deceived by the Railroad who  eventually advises him his village will not have a train station. In turn he deceives his workers by pocketing payment from the “Railroad” but never managing to pay them. Rather “investing” the funds on his worker’s behalf.  Swindlers swindling the swindled. 

Meanwhile Esimesac is promoted to “underboss” by Riopel and his shadow grows and his ego to boot. Poverty increases and Riopel “invests” the monies he has received from the railroad without paying any money to the workers in his shop. A modern day Madoff? And speaking of modernity and relevance I love the line early in the movie about the difficulty the economic recession has created! Sounds very current.

The conclusion of the film is difficult to grasp. Is it a sincere portrayal of a mythical rural Quebec society or is it a sarcastic interpretation of it? Hence lies the power of the film. It causes you to think. In  my opinion it is very rich in sarcasm shredding the ideal of a rural agronomist society in Quebec.

In these types of mythical films acting is at best quirky. In some cases poor acting creates a memorable experience and there is no better example of this than Ernest Borgnine in “Escape from New York” or Mel Gibson in the original “Mad Max”. Here the acting is a bit woody as if the characters are not quite certain of what film they are in perhaps a Radio Canada weekly drama. Gilder Roy as the blacksmith absolutely dominates this film delivering a masterpiece of a performance. Such expressive and sincere facial expressions!

A bit long on the tooth in terms of being featured in the theatre but check it out at your local video store. Innovative Quebec film making.

(Esimesac, Director Luc Picard, Quebec, 2012 105 minutes).


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