C'est pas moi, je le jure! (It's Not Me, I Swear) Commentary

The Russian writer and political activist, Leo Tolstoy, once said that all happy families are alike, but that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.

The Doré family is definitely unhappy. Philippe Doré (Daniel Brière) is a famous human rights activist whose career has almost severed his connection to his family. His wife, Madeleine Doré (Suzanne Clément), a free spirit and frustrated artist, is slowly going crazy, trapped in her role as middle class housewife. Their mutual despair leads them to spectacular fights that involve smashed furniture and slashed paintings.  Their older son, Jérome (Gabriel Maillé), is trying desperately to make everyone in his family behave and be normal. Their younger son, Léon (Antoine l’Écuyer) reacts to the situation by repeatedly attempting suicide and setting the occasional fire.

Based on Bruno Hébert’s 1997 autobiographical novel, Philippe Falardeau’s 2008 feature film C’est pas moi, je le jure! (It’s Not Me, I Swear) traces the breakdown of a suburban family through the reactions of a ten-year-old boy, Léon. This extraordinary film takes a 360-degree view of the ways in which people feel and express emotional trauma. We see each character in turn, facing outward, away from the family, wrapped in his or her own pain; and then we see each person facing inward, playing off the pain of the others. The result is a dark comedy that pulses between torment, farce, and tenderness.

It is the child characters who carry the emotional freight of the story. Jérome is the glue that holds the family together. He is a quiet, intelligent boy who just wants his family to be happy. He understands that his father is miserable, but too tightly contained to express his emotions. Philippe is a conventional man who means well. He fights, after all, for the human rights of others. But, he is so caught up in his work that he can’t see the pain around him. He doesn’t notice, for example, that the little girl across the street, Léa (Catherine Faucher), is being physically abused by her stepfather. And, by the time he notices the depth of his own wife’s misery, she has already gone.

Jérome also understands his mother, who was an artist when she first met Philippe. Since their marriage, her husband has slowly grown into a suit and tie, while she has clung to her tie-dyed granny dresses. They have drifted apart in every way. But, while Philippe sails out every day to his successes in the city, Madeleine is left suffocating in their suburban bungalow. She dreams of Greece and freedom. It is only Jérome who realizes that she is leaving them forever; on the eve of her departure, he forces her to admit this and asks her why. Later, it is Jérome who surreptitiously discovers her telephone number in Greece and calls night after night hoping to bring her back home.

Most of all, Jérome wants Léon to be happy. He is growing weary with having to be always saving Léon’s life and forever covering up for him. Jérome is not sure how much longer he can do this. He assures Léon that he never tells anyone what Léon really gets up to, “I never tell anyone anything.” Near the end of the narrative, when Léon is lying in a hospital bed, Jérome touches his brother tenderly and, releasing his own emotions for the first time, begs Léon to be happy, and to stop putting everyone through this emotional nightmare over and over again. Jérome doesn’t want to hear their father weeping at night any more.

Though in his early teens, Jérome is old enough to try to act as a mediator in the family. His 10-year-old brother is not. Léon can only feel pain and frustration. He understands as well as Jérome does that the family is headed for collapse, but his responses are physical. Léon is the narrator of the film. He tells us that he sets fires in order to divert people from fighting (it’s an old Indian trick). He tries to drag his mother and her suitcases out of the taxi that will take her to Greece. But mostly, Léon tries to kill himself in a desperate attempt to divert his parent’s attention to him. We first encounter him dangling from a tree by a rope; he falls backwards from a high concrete wall in front of his horrified father; and finally, he places his head directly in the path of a bowling ball. He wishes that God would give him some illumination, but it seems that God has other plans for Léon.

Once Madeleine leaves, Léon embarks on a campaign of pointless vandalism in the neighbourhood. But it is only when he teams up with Léa that he develops a purpose. Léa is Léon’s alter ego. She lives across the street and is in his class at school. She is also unhappy. Her father has abandoned the family and her mother’s new boyfriend beats Léa. Her bruises are not self-inflicted, as are Léon’s. Despite the horror of her home life, Léa is more resilient than Léon. While Léon wants to find his mother and bring her home, Léa simply wants to escape to wherever her father is. She has made a map and hatched a plan for Léon to break into the homes of vacationing neighbours, steal their money and buy a ticket to Greece. She lies to him saying that her brother is a travel agent. On the fateful day, when they take the ferry across to the city, Léa runs ahead of Léon to the house where she thinks her father is living. But he has long since left. She is devastated. Léon asks if they are still going to the travel agent. “Of course not,” she replies. “My brother is only 15!” They are caught and returned home by the police. Then the truth about the neighbourhood vandalism comes out. Léa is sent to live with her grandmother and Léon tries once more to kill himself. Lying in his hospital bed, he muses that he will wait a little bit more for his mother to return, maybe forever.

C’est pas moi, je le jure! won awards at the Atlantic Film Festival in 2008 for Best Actor (Antoine L’Écuyer) and Best Canadian Feature (Philippe Falardeau); Best Film and the Grand Prize in 2009 at the Berlin Film Festival; the Audience Award at CPH-Pix; a Jutra award in 2009 for Best Cinematography (André Turpin); an award for Best Supporting Actress (Suzanne Clément) from the Vancouver Film Critics Circle in 2009; and the Milos Macourek Award at the Zlín International Film Festival.

Evelyn Ellerman