Based on an historical court case and inspired by the Quebecois novel, La Lampe dans la fenêtre by Pauline Cadieux, Cordélia (Cordelia) tells the story of what it costs to be different and female in a small community. At the end of the 1890s, a young woman, Cordélia Viau (Louise Portal), who is married to an older man, Isidore Poirier (Pierre Gobeil), comes under the scrutiny and accusations of her village. She is a successful seamstress married to a man who loves her, but who is unable to find the work he needs in their rural backwater. Reluctantly he leaves for a job in California, which means that Cordelia is now a grass widow and vulnerable to accusations of immorality if she does not act as the village expects her to.
Although Cordelia sews, plays the organ at church on Sundays, and gives singing lessons to her mentally handicapped handyman, Samuel Parslow (Gaston Lepage), time weighs heavy on her hands. She is bored and lonely. She has no children and her vivacious character make her an easy object for criticism. Even when Isidore lived in Saint-Canut, Cordelia knowingly flouted social mores by having quiet social evenings in their home. Young male friends would steal into the house when the lamp was in the window and they would sing and joke with one another while sipping sherry.
Cordelia was marginally able to get away with this “loose” behaviour when Isidore was at home; but, the lonelier she becomes, the less cautious. She sings and waltzes around the parlour in broad daylight with Samuel, for whom she has a great deal of affection. Samuel, in his simple way, loves Cordelia’s beauty, her kindness, and her gift of music. He loves singing in the church choir; his beautiful tenor voice lifts their weekly performance beyond the ordinary. Yet, Cordelia and Samuel are seen through the open window; and tongues begin to wag, as they dance together with such obvious pleasure.
Gradually, Cordelia begins to invite young men and women to her home for social evenings – there is singing and dancing, laughter, and drinking: unbecoming activities for a married woman living alone. At least one man, Joseph Fortin (Raymond Cloutier) tries to seduce her on evening when she has had too much to drink. She rejects him, making an instant enemy. Cordelia develops a reputation and is shunned by the villagers.
Into this tense atmosphere, Isidore returns from California. Cordelia rejoices, as does Samuel. They both love Isidore. But, one day, she returns home to find the door locked; with the help of the local blacksmith, she breaks in to find that Isidore has been brutally murdered. Naturally blame falls on Cordelia and, by implication, Samuel. Despite irregularities in the two trials that follow, they are both deemed to be guilty and subsequently hanged.
Writer-Director, Jean Beaudin, tells this affecting story with great simplicity, but with an obvious bias towards the innocence of Cordelia. She may have been frivolous and unwise, but does that make her a murderer? Beaudin casts his gaze instead on the figures of authority in the little village, examining their own culpability in allowing gossip, slander, misogyny and vindictiveness to escalate into a witch-hunt. The local priest fails her completely; he should have stopped the gossip, and advised Cordelia how to behave. Instead, all he can do is to pray impotently. His inability to defend a parishioner from injustice allows agents of the law to ambush an innocent woman.
An English “detective,” (James Blendick), is hired to trick Cordelia into a confession. In a series of “old boys” discussions before and between the trials, the judges have decided on Cordelia’s guilt before a word of testimony is heard. A reporter from the respected newspaper, La Presse, bribes a policeman to let him into Cordelia’s house so that he can rifle through her possessions; he then publishes a story full of lies and innuendo. The man who arranges the execution is only concerned with producing a great spectacle for his own personal glory. And, the final injustice of all: the English “detective” is hired once again, this time to be Cordelia’s hangman. The sexual overtones of this male conspiracy to re-assert public morality and maintain the status quo of gender relations permeate the entire latter half of the movie. Only men are allowed to attend the hanging. The camera pans slowly over their stern faces. Dressed in black, as though for a photograph, they quietly wait for the fitting end of a woman who would betray and kill her husband.
The theme of the “widow” is common throughout the aesthetic traditions of both east and west. It is generally used to indicate how necessary the tradition of marriage is to reinforce contemporary mores; wives left on their own, whether through death, abandonment, or separation, are vulnerable to corruption, or to corrupting others. Female characters who show some independence by securing employment outside the home, by developing a larger social circle that brings them into contact with men, by obtaining an education, or by engaging in activities that afford them pleasure, are castigated by other characters and often come to a sticky end.
Separated from Cordélia by a half century in setting, is an English Canadian film informed by the narrative conventions of the “widow” theme. But, while Cordelia is a tragedy, Bye Bye Blues, by writer-producer Anne Wheeler, depicts a wife who succeeds, if only barely, to survive separation from her husband during wartime, support her children, grow personally, and even resist temptation while singing in a dance band. This commendable list of virtues is unusual in a “widow” character who acts against societal expectations, and might therefore make for a profitable, comparative study of the two films.
Cordélia won a Genie award for best costume design in 1980; and it won Gaston Lepage a prix d’interprétation at the Festival internationale du film et d’échanges francophones (FIFEF) that same year for his stunning performance as Samuel.