Québécois filmmaker Anne Émond talks about depicting suicide, family intimacy, and her hometown in her moving new film.
Québécois writer-director Anne Émond’s Our Loved Ones is an intimate family drama spanning decades. At its core, it’s about the close relationship between David (Maxim Gaudette) and his daughter Laurence (Karelle Tremblay), and how they are caught up in cycles of suicide and grief within their family.
The film starts out in David’s perspective when his father commits suicide and follows him as he falls in love and has children, skipping seamlessly ahead in time without warning — we feel the quick passage of time in the same way he does. Once his daughter Laurence (Karelle Tremblay) becomes a teenager, the film shifts to her perspective, and follows her coming-of-age story.
Set and shot in Notre-Dame-du-Portage on St Lawrence River on the south shore, the hometown of writer-director Émond, it’s a very personal film in place and subject matter. It’s deeply moving and gorgeously rendered. The film had its North American Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival where I sat down with Émond to discuss the film.
Seventh Row (7R): Suicide looms large in the film. What made you want to broach this topic?
Anne Émond: It’s very close to me. I think every film is a little bit autobiographical. This one is a lot. I always knew I wanted to make this movie one day. I had the feeling that I could talk about it. There’s a lot of movies about suicide, and to me, a lot of them are too simplistic, too naive. It’s like, “Oh the character will kill himself because he has big problems. He’s taking drugs.” There is always an explanation. It’s not always like that in life, and I wanted to make a film about this sensitive and melancholic character.
7R: The film starts off in David’s perspective. Midway through the film, it really shifts more towards Laurence. That really shapes how you see her in a different light and see him as not just a father figure but someone who was once young and confused. How did you decide to switch perspectives?
Anne Émond: At the beginning of the writing of the film, I was thinking, there are two main characters. It’s hard to explain to people sometimes. They read the script and say, “You forget David at this point, what’s happening?” To me, it’s a film about drama and suicide. But it’s also mostly about how time is passing by and how things are changing. It’s about what do you leave to your children, this inheritance? It was going with the themes of the movie.
Also, this character David, he has everything. He has a wife. He has children. But he has this melancholy. His children make him so happy. He needs them. It’s a reason for him to be alive. But in another way, it’s tragic, because they are growing up. He’s too sensitive to live with that. What’s good for him also kills him. It’s the tragedy of life. He cannot accept that life is passing by.
7R: In the beginning, especially, you move through time so quickly. You have one scene where David is meeting his future wife and in the next scene, he’s having a baby. Shortly thereafter, there’s another baby. It pushes forward in time without warning.
Anne Émond: It’s a simple story. It’s a guy meeting a woman and having babies. It’s quite classical. But it was so hard to write this film. I didn’t want to put the date — we’re in 1970. Because it’s simple, and because everybody falls in love and makes children, so I was thinking, “OK, I’ll just tell the story like this.” The children are growing up. It’s quite universal, and everyone will understand that. Of course, I was very nervous. I was thinking that people understand that they have two children now, but I think the people who are watching the film are bright and can keep up.
Watch our directing masterclass with Anne Émond and Madeleine Olnek
7R: The film is really great at dealing with memory and how certain objects or the Gilles Vigneault song start to have new memories associated with them and become really important. How did you think about that?
Anne Émond: It’s about memory, this film. I think it’s a very nostalgic film, but in a good way. I think in every family, even if you don’t have suicide, or this kind of story, you will have a drama. It’s not possible that a family will go a generation without something happening. With the drama, there is also tenderness and memory — good stories that were not that good probably but we’ve told the story so much that it becomes a good story. There are two main characters in the film: the young girl and the father. The young girl, when she’s young, I think the film is built like memories, like how you remember when you were young. This Christmas party, for example, is how I felt it when I was seven years old, when I could go and sleep later. How it looks, it’s about memories.
7R: I like the way you captured how the family touches and hugs and how they inhabit space together. How did you go about deciding how to do that?
Anne Émond: It’s a very sad movie, very very sad. A lot of people told me they were crying during the film. It was very important to me that it would also be quite tender. That’s why we cry, because they love each other so much. He loves his wife. He loves the children. It’s important that they embrace and touch each other. They are close as a family. That’s why it’s sad at the end.
When you grow up in a house like that, you know everyone so well. Like, I know my brother, when I was fourteen years old, you know everyone in your family so well. That intimacy and tenderness was important to me. Because without that, it’s just a sad story. It was important to show that because before he dies, David had the time to give a lot to the children. They will miss him, of course, but he had the time to be quite a good father.
7R: How do you think about how to depict that intimacy in the mise en scène? I think the sound is really important for that.
Anne Émond: The first important thing is the casting. We did a lot of casting. We chose Maxim and then we chose Laurence, and then we built a family around them. On the set, we were shooting in a small village five hours from Montreal. So everyone, we were almost a family. The team was sharing this house on the river, and every night we had meals together and parties. I’m sure you see it on the screen. This tenderness and this intimacy, we had it. At the end of the shooting, we felt like a family.
7R: You really capture the beauty of the rural Quebec landscape. How did you decide where to shoot the film and how to emphasize that beauty?
Anne Émond: It’s where I’m born. So I grew up there so I know this place so much. It’s shot at Notre-Dame-du-Portage on St Lawrence River on the south shore. When I was a teenager, I was fifteen years old, I was drinking with my friends thinking I would do a movie here one day. I didn’t know it would be this movie, but I always wanted to go back and shoot this landscape I know by heart. I knew where to put the camera. It was more complicated in the house. But the landscape, I love so much.