La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z Commentary

Winner of the first prize for a feature film at both the Montreal and Locarno International Film Festivals in 1965, La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z (Merry World of Leopold Z) was also the first full-length feature for its writer-director, Gilles Carle.

What resulted as the adventures of a Montréal snowplow driver on Christmas Eve was actually meant to be an NFB documentary about snow removal. But, Carle found the money to turn it into a feature. In his hands, documentary merges with comedy, and objective observation makes room for ideology. La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z (Merry World of Leopold Z) is certainly about snow removal in Montréal, but it is also about the life of an ordinary, middle class man trying to succeed in a changing society dominated by a foreign language and culture.

The movie telegraphs its ideological bias in the opening scenes, which narrate the life story of its main character in a humorous way through a series of photos: here is Léo’s house and his snowplow, which keep him in debt; here is his school, where he struggled to keep up; here the unemployment office where he met his wife; and here his city, Montréal, where English is accepted, but is not the language of the people.

The bland exterior of the movie is deceptive. Léopold Z (Guy L’Écuyer) is an easy-going, 32 year old, contract snowplow driver. He works hard, but is always in debt because of his aspirations to have the material symbols of middle class success. His home is worth $12,000, but he would like a bigger one worth $25,000, like that of his friend and boss, Théophile (Paul Hébert).

When Léo began his snowplowing business, he practised writing his business signature for the right effect; he had a professional photo taken of himself as a successful businessman. However, Léo will never be anything more than he is: a small contractor with more money outgoing than incoming. He has decided to give his wife, Catherine (Monique Joly), a fur coat for Christmas. But, for that he must apply his executive signature to yet another loan form before taking the cash, $200, to a buddy at the City of Montréal garage. The money is then swapped for a “genuine,” mink paw fur jacket. As he takes the coat, Léo observes that surely he could have had more from the minks than their paws for $200.

The narrative follows Léo around Montréal in his snowplow on December 24th. It is snowing and his boss expects all the contractors to be working over-time. There will no midnight mass for the drivers! Yet, Léo’s wife has other plans. She has given him a list of chores. Léo is to buy hockey equipment for their son, Jacques; pick up their cousin, Josette (Suzanne Valéry), from the station and take her the club where she will be singing; and be home in time to get ready for midnight mass.  Not on Catherine’s list, but definitely on Léo’s, is getting the loan and then picking up her coat. His personal plans do not include snow removal, as his boss and good friend, Théo, understands only too well. Théo begins to follow Léo around with veiled threats of cancelling his contract if he doesn’t get busy. But Léo knows his friend just as well. In a completely guileless way, he soon has Théo sitting in on Josette’s nightclub rehearsal and shopping with him for skates. Théo, in turn, takes Léo to the perfume counter where they buy presents for their wives and then convinces Léo to help him pick up some new furniture for his $25,000 home.

In return for Théo’s forbearance, Léo must listen to Théophile’s sermon on marriage and the proper differential in power between men and women. This is the longest bit of dialogue in the movie and occurs at its centre point. As Théo informs Léo that he must stop being so hen-pecked and take control in the marriage, because women like that sort of thing, Léo remains diplomatically neutral. Théo illustrates his methods by saying that, from time to time, he withdraws some privileges from his wife, like going to the hairdresser. It restores the natural order in their marriage and raises him in his wife’s esteem. Léo replies that, if he tried to do anything like that to Catherine, he would have his privileges removed for a month.

The values expressed by Théo in this important passage are those of the Duplessis era in Québec, years of extreme conservatism in social and political life. They are undercut by Léo’s non-committal grunts and most amusingly by the loudspeaker system at the city garage. While the friends are playing hookey from their jobs, a male voice pages Théophile Lemay repeatedly, asking him to call his wife; she wants to be picked up at the hairdresser’s. The voice echoes out across yard and then across the barren snowy wastes surrounding the garage. Neither of these men is part of the Quiet Revolution that was then sweeping Québec. Though not attracted by Théo’s version of macho culture, Léo still attends midnight mass with all its outward display of religious devotion. But, he has less to lose from social change than his friend, Théo. He will still be himself, no matter who is in charge after the Revolution.

The techniques employed by Gilles Carle in this movie are those of Direct Cinema, an approach to film that developed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Its purpose is to show the life of an ordinary person with as much fidelity as possible. This blend of documentary and fiction marked a shift in filmmaking for the NFB, which had been occupied almost entirely with documentary to that point. But, it also marked the beginnings of a national cinema for Québec, one in which the actual lives of Quebeckers was portrayed without the filter of state religion, cultural mythologies or politics. For this reason, La Vie heureuse de Léopold Z (Merry World of Leopold Z) can be understood as an anti-epic. Unlike the grand adventures of Ulysses sailing for ten years trying to find his way home, or Parsifal’s year-and-a-day quest for the Holy Grail, the “epic” of the ordinary guy from Montréal takes place over a few hours, with his snow plow, in his home town – and it involves shopping.

Evelyn Ellerman