J.A. Martin, Photographe Commentary

One of the most important feature films ever made by the NFB, J. A. Martin, Photographe (J. A. Martin, Photographer) (1976) charts the desperate gamble taken by a woman to reclaim her identity. Rose-Aimée (Monique Mercure) has spent the last fifteen years doing her wifely duty. Mother to five children, she keeps a tidy well-organized home. She looks after her mother-in-law. She organizes family life so well that her self-contained photographer husband, J. A. (Marcel Sabourin), can work in his home studio in semi-autonomy. As the movie opens, we see him through doorways, sweeping from room to room in his smock, glancing impassively back at Rose-Aimée and the children. Husband and wife each have a sphere of work in the house, but there is a reserved distance between them.

While the cool efficiency of this marriage suits J.A. quite well, Rose-Aimée is in despair. She is the sensual heart of the household, yet she is slowly drying up from a lack of physical affection. Director Jean Beaudin frames the routines of their lives through windows and open doorways. Rose-Aimée looks out the window at her mother-in-law, who naps in a chair. The camera switches to show Rose-Aimée trapped inside the house. She is terrified that this will be the sum total of her life. She worries about ending up like her mother-in-law, who tells her to stop fussing: J.A. is like his father – quiet, sober and a good provider. With the exception of a six-week trip that he takes every year to visit his more distant customers, he is always at home working. What more could a woman want?

What indeed? As night falls, Rose-Aimée follows her routine of checking on the children and blowing out the lamps on her way to bed. J. A. is asleep. She looks at him and whispers, “This year I am gong with you.” But epic voyages are not made for women. First of all, you have to find a baby-sitter. And epics take planning. J.A. has a specially fitted wagon that holds all his developing chemicals, a cot, his spare shirts, his food and cooking utensils. Rose-Aimée doesn’t have time to plan for the trip; she is too busy making sure that the household will run properly while she’s gone. And there is no guarantee that she can even go. Neighbour after neighbour promises and then refuses to look after the children. Finally, Rose-Aimée contacts an aunt, who surprises her by turning up on the doorstep just in time for Rose-Aimée to grab a straw hat and run out to the wagon. She can’t believe her luck. Joseph-Albert is not pleased to be making the trip with a woman on his hands. He says little. However, Rose-Aimée is enchanted by the first real adventure of her life. With wide eyes, she takes in the beautiful rural vistas through which they travel.

The epic form is designed for a male character who embarks on a quest or a journey and whose courage and resolve are tested along the way. Epics are often circular, in that the hero returns home after a set period of time, having achieved a goal or completed a task. The hero is always changed by the journey, because epics are as much about identity-formation as they are about fighting duels and giant sea monsters. What is more, epic heros never travel alone: they are always accompanied by at least one friend and often by a guide who ensures they come to no harm. While J.A.’s yearly trip has long ago become routine for him, it still represents time away from a noisy house filled with five children and two women. So, he is a somewhat reluctant “epic friend” for Rose-Aimee. On the other hand, for Rose-Aimée, the six-week journey spreads before her like uncharted waters. After their first night camping out, she is delighted to discover that J.A. has made coffee. It’s the first time in fifteen years she hasn’t had to make coffee in the morning.

Their journey alternates between scenes of shared pleasure and cool isolation. Rose-Aimée is driven by the possibility of both rekindling the passion of their early years and of re-defining herself as a woman, not just as a wife and mother. This is not a goal that J.A. actually understands at first. He is mostly just resentful of her presence. Rose-Aimée has invaded his professional space. Furious with one another, they argue about the real problem in their marriage: the distance that has grown between them because of their different personalities. In a beautifully rendered scene, they each walk out of the frame in a different direction. When they leave the camping spot, they ride on different ends of the wagon.

The mid-point to Rose-Aimée’s epic journey is a visit to her aunt and uncle where they are welcomed, fed and shown photographs of their own wedding. Pleasant memories are punctuated by the arrival of one of Rose-Aimée’s former suitors, a man who still loves her. As J.A. and Rose-Aimée lie in bed that night, he reaches out to her; she turns away from him, but she is smiling. The next day brings an especially bumpy road, cramps, and eventually a miscarriage in the back of the wagon, by the side of a lake. J.A. paces back and forth by the shoreline, agonizing over his inability to help Rose-Aimée. All he can do is bury the fetus.

Their six-week journey brings the couple in contact with a cross-section of Québec society in the late 1890s: poor farm families, rich English mill-owners, merchants, and newly-weds. The Martins quietly compare their own lives with those of others. Gradually they come to understand and appreciate each other’s needs. As their home comes into view, Rose-Aimée sees it with fresh eyes; it all looks so much larger than she thought.

A luminous and sensitive film, J.A. Martin, Photographe has proven to be one of the classics of Canadian film-making. It won seven Canadian Film Awards, including best feature film, best direction, best actress, and best cinematography. In addition, Monique Mercure won best actress at the Cannes Festival in 1977 for her role as Rose-Aimée and the film won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury.

Evelyn Ellerman