Contre toute espérance (Summit Circle) Commentary

Contre toute espérance (Summit Circle) (2007) is the second in a trilogy of films by Bernard Émond based on the Christian virtues of faith, hope and charity.  The first, La Neuvaine (The Novena), was released in 2005; the third, La Donation (The Legacy), in 2009. All three films are elegantly paced, psychological dramas that have impressed film critics at home and abroad. Contre toute espérance won a Jutra award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role. Guylaine Tremblay gives a crystalline performance as Réjeanne. The film was well received at the International Film Festival in Locarno and in Toronto.

In Contre toute espérance, Émond explores Hope by slowly, inexorably, stripping it away from a hard-working, middle-aged couple who have finally achieved their modest dream. Réjeanne is a telephone operator; her husband Gilles (Guy Jodoin), a truck driver. If they both keep their health and their jobs, they can just about afford the beautiful little doll’s house they have just purchased. But then, as in the story of Job, Émond, like God, takes both those lifelines away. Gilles suffers first one stroke and then another; Réjeanne loses her full-time job. Inevitably, they also lose their dream home.

The biblical story of Job is an enigma. God allows Satan to test Job, whom Satan claims is only pious because God has been kind to him and made him prosper. God is sure of Job, so he tells Satan to test Job as much as he likes, but not to kill him. Accordingly, Satan destroys all Job’s possessions, kills his family, and then attacks Job’s body with illness. Despite accusations by his friends that he must be guilty of something, Job protests his innocence and his belief in God, who then rewards Job with good health, a new family and new possessions. It is never clear why Job was used as a pawn by the powers of good and evil, nor what benefit he has gained. The story of Job is therefore one of the most unsettling in the Old Testament. It does not answer the question, “Why do the righteous suffer?”

In Émond’s film, we watch two modest achieve their small dream. They are a loving couple. They have friends and family who love them, They harm no one. What point is there to making them suffer so much? Réjeanne  is quiet woman, dedicated to doing a good job and to being a good wife. Gilles takes a professional attitude to his work; at home, he loves to garden. He and his friend Claude (Gildor Roy) like to go hunting. As far as the audience can see, this man and woman are blameless.

But, within months of buying the house, they are tested cruelly. Gilles suffers a stroke, from which he makes a modest recovery. He is able to get a job at a gas station; he recovers some of his speech; he plants some bulbs in the garden. He is even able to go on a hunting trip with Claude. Then Réjeanne’s call centre is sold to an American firm that has promised to deliver the product cheaper and more efficiently by using non-union labour. After 20 years with the same firm, she is unemployed. This terrible blow, followed by Gilles’ second stroke, makes it impossible for the couple to continue to live in their new home. They are forced to sell and go back to renting.

Réjeanne’s reaction to all these hardships is stoic acceptance. She takes on a job at a catering firm, does all the cooking and cleaning at home, paints walls, and looks after Gilles. She is determined to hold onto Hope in spite of all these disasters. She even visits a church and sits for a few minutes alone looking down the long aisle to the altar before quietly leaving. She is almost as silent as Gilles, but she does not give up. This fact is forcefully brought home to Gilles by their mutual friend Claude, who tries his best to shake some sense into Gilles. He tells him to stop feeling sorry for himself and to help Réjeanne out. She is slowly crumbling under the weight of her sorrow. But Gilles cannot accept his afflictions. He is angry, withdrawn and uncommunicative.

The three of them go on one last hunting trip. On the way home, Gilles insists that they go to visit the house again. The current owners kindly let them in, but Gilles is so distraught that Réjeanne and Claude take him home. When Réjeanne goes out to the store for some milk, Gilles takes his rifle out of its case and kills himself. On her return, she cradles him in her arms, getting blood on her face and clothes. Then, in a fit of rage, she goes to the home of the former owner of her call centre and shoots out all the windows.

It is at this point that the movie opens. Réjeanne is sitting, blood-stained and almost catatonic in front of police lieutenant Allard (René-Daniel Dubois), who is trying to get her to speak. Realizing that she has withdrawn somewhere he cannot go, he releases her to a psychiatric ward in the hospital. The story of Gilles and Réjeanne’s last few months unfolds between the lieutenant’s periodic visits her in the hospital. She says nothing, so he must piece the story together by speaking to others. It is not until he discovers that her husband killed himself, that Allard is able to assure her that she is not guilty and that she can speak now. Her first words are, “God help me.”

Evelyn Ellerman