Félix Dufour-Laperrière’s animated feature Archipelago (Archipel) is an unorthodox essay film from, of and about Québec – “a homeland of images, secret passions and enthusiasms”.

Those seeking an informative documentary on Canada’s second-largest, mainly Francophone province should look elsewhere – this enterprise is strictly psychogeographic, a freewheeling showcase of 12 animators deploying wildly different styles to evoke myriad moods, images and sensations connected, directly or tangentially, with Québec.

Animation techniques overlap with live-action footage amid hallucinatory swirls of on-screen hand-written text; old maps, photographs and films – most prominently a 1941 newsreel-style reportage – are presented, augmented, rotoscoped and distorted; the concrete morphs into the impressionistic.

The project is held together over its 72-minute running-time not by geographical considerations or any particular aesthetic but rather – and sometimes precariously – by Dufour-Laperrière’s poetic script. Spoken by actors Florence Blain Mbaye and Mattis Savard-Verhoeven, this is an enigmatic dialogue between two wanderers sharing an imaginary journey along the thousand-mile St Lawrence River towards the Atlantic, taking note of the colossal Seaway’s thousand islands.

Archipelago (2021)

Québec is dauntingly massive: bigger than France, Spain and Sweden combined, but with a population smaller than Switzerland’s. “La belle province” has long punched far above its weight culturally – Leonard Cohen, Arcade Fire and Mordecai Richler all hail from Montréal. Its vibrant cinema scene – Claude Jutra, Pierre Perrault, Gilles Carle, Denys Arcand, Robert LePage, Xavier Dolan, Denis Côté, Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve and many others (including performers such as the late Christopher Plummer) – has for decades enjoyed domestic and international success that far exceeds the vast majority of sovereign nations.

This isn’t accidental. Rather it’s an empirical justification of sustained cultural funding in Canada and particularly in Québec, where national and regional support for cinema can be compared with the examples of European leaders such as Austria. A stimulating big-screen ecology has been successfully maintained, encompassing mainstream hits like Vallée’s C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005) and the wild experimenta of Daïchi Saïto. That long-time Montréal resident’s most recent project, the 30-minute earthearthearth, world-premiered – like Archipelago – at the 50th Rotterdam Film Festival, during its online-only first half.

Like the rest of the IFFR audience, I experienced Archipelago in sub-optimal style – at home in Vienna. Rotterdam was my first experience of ‘attending’ an online-only festival, though the dislocations and accommodations involved weren’t inappropriate given Dufour-Laperrière and company’s intention to unglue viewers from mundane considerations of physical and chronological reality. And the experience was overall a stimulating one, even if the film’s flights of philosophical fancy occasionally spiralled into precious pseudo-profundity (“shape with hunger our daily tragedies, our irreparable banality…”)

Archipelago (2021)

My appreciation was boosted by my long-enduring fascination with all things relating to Québec, which I’ve visited three times over the past half-decade or so. I was there in mid-March last year, attending the shorts festival Regard. This entailed staying in Chicoutimi on the Saguenay River (a major St Lawrence tributary) five hours’ drive north of Montréal – but, counter-intuitively, slightly south of Paris.

The festival began one evening and was cancelled the next afternoon on government orders given the sudden escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic. Due to various mishaps I ended up remaining in Chicoutimi’s snowbound, sub-zero environs for another week. Indeed, at various points, observing TV reports of the mounting chaos back in Europe amid the relatively disease-free calm of rural Québec, I seriously considered just staying put for weeks or even months.

There are certainly many worse places to be ‘stuck’ than Québec, as Archipelago indicates. The vast majority of its terrain unspoiled wilderness, its urban settlements display fascinating confluence of cultural influences, among them French, Anglo and First Nations. The latter, disappointingly, get only relatively brief acknowledgement here via an unsubtitled Innu-aimun-language poem by Joséphine Bacon, translated into English and French in the closing credits: “We are rare / we are rich / like the land we dream.” Québec is indeed a state of mind. Do we ever really leave?

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