Sophie Dupuis’s second film, Souterrain, is a thoughtful exploration of the emotional lives of men working in a Quebec mine. The film is screening across Canada until Dec 31 at the Whistler Film Festival. Tickets are available here.
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Between Chien du garde and Souterrain, Québécois writer-director Sophie Dupuis has proved herself an adept observer of the inner lives of men confined to misogynistic or patriarchal spaces. While Chien du garde followed a Montreal crime family through ridiculous antics, it was grounded by a sensitive performance from Jean-Simon Leduc as a reluctant enforcer, playing off a jittery, unhinged performance from Théodore Pellerin as his younger brother. In that world, brawn always trumped brains, and the ability to process and show emotion was discouraged. With her second feature, Souterrain, Dupuis delves even deeper into male relationship dynamics by looking at a group of gold miners in rural Quebec. With a more realistic premise, Dupuis’s knack with actors and for navigating how men perform masculinity — and are hindered by it — is on full display here.
In Souterrain, Joakim Robillard stars as twentysomething miner Maxime, whose father runs the mine. Maxime is struggling to start a family with his girlfriend, and to keep up his friendship with Julien (the always excellent Théodore Pellerin who gave one of the best performances of the decade), whose traumatic brain injury has prevented him from returning to work at the mine. The film opens with a crisis in the mine where some of the miners have gone missing, some died, and Julien has been called in as part of the rescue team to help. He attempts to disobey orders so that he can try to save the missing men, and then the film flashes back to two months prior to help us understand what made Maxime so insistent on this ill-advised if compassionate course of action. That day, he has to be physically stopped from running deeper into the mine to find the victims.
In the months prior, Maxime’s relationship with Julien reveals the sensitive boy behind Maxime’s macho exterior. The miners are mostly, though not exclusively, men and this testosterone-laden environment can encourage macho posturing. But away from the mine, back home, Maxime goes out of his way to spend time with Julien when their other friends from the mine have all but dropped him. He helps Julien physically whenever he struggles, without looking for thanks or to take away Julien’s autonomy, just doing what he feels any friend should do when someone is struggling. When Julien struggles to find his words, frustrated with himself, Maxime lets him look for the words without jumping in impatiently, unless he can tell that it would relieve his friend. In that way, he’s a more supportive presence than Julien’s parents who are still deeply grieving the loss of their able-bodied son. Maxime and Julien’s friendship is loving, which makes it all the more heartbreaking when they struggle to share their emotions with each other, unable to comfort one another physically should one of them cry.
Unfortunately, the final pieces of the backstory puzzle in Souterrain are a bit overwrought and jeopardize the purity of Maxime and Julien’s friendship. Eventually, it’s revealed that Maxime was driving drunk and was responsible for the crash that led to Julien’s injury. It’s disappointing that his attentiveness to his friend is linked, in the script, so much to his guilt and a sort of martyrdom, almost as if this bond between men would be unacceptable otherwise. It’s also a bit much that Maxime’s guilt would lead him to foolhardy decisions in other aspects of his life, lest he feel responsible for harm to anyone else. Similarly, Julien’s father’s depression as a result of his son’s injury, and the way he seems to think his son’s struggles are all about him, goes underexplored, which makes it largely distasteful rather than sympathetic.
By the time we circle back to the rescue mission in the mine, all of these relationship dynamics are on the table. Yet what’s most emotionally resonant in Souterrain is the way that the men react to losing their colleagues. When they find out someone has died, the entire team mourns, breaking out into tears. Everyone finds a way to blame themselves, whether or not it was really their fault. There’s an understanding shared in looks exchanged, but once again, just like with Maxime and Julien, the men are physically siloed from one another. Nobody reaches out; they all just silently suffer.
Souterrain is screening online across Canada until Dec 31 at the Whistler Film Festival. Tickets are available here.