Les Grandes Chaleurs (Heat Wave) Commentary

Les Grandes Chaleurs/ Heat Wave (2009) is Sophie Lorain’s first feature film as a director. It is a sensual and funny romantic comedy about a May-December relationship. In this case, the older lover is a woman, Gisèle Cloutier (Marie Thérèse Fortin), a 52-year old social worker who works with troubled teens. Her lover is Yannick (François Arnaud), a 19-year old former client.

The starting point for Lorain’s narrative answers the question, “How could a middle-aged professional woman even consider such an alliance?” In the opening scene, Gisèle talks to the camera as she walks along the waterfront near a summer cottage. Her answer is that it makes her happy, that when a love is so strong, it is unavoidable.

The rest of the movie reveals how Gisèle came to be at a cottage thinking about love. The story begins with the funeral of her husband, Fred. He had been a banker, who suffered a lingering illness. Gisèle devotedly nursed Fred during his decline, only to hear a deathbed confession that he had had a mistress for many years. He does not reveal the woman’s name. Gisèle is so angry that she has no tears for her husband’s funeral.

She goes home and systematically empties the house of any memory of Fred. She makes him disappear. His clothes, all their furniture, especially their bed: everything is sold or given away. When her sister, Marjo (Marie Brassard), who seems to be grieving for Fred far more than Gisèle, arrives with a casserole, she finds Gisèle waving a rifle. Startled, she cries, “Don’t do anything you might regret!” Marjo had been Fred’s “pal,” going with him on hunting and fishing trips and sharing a love of the great outdoors. Gisèle gives Marjo the rifle and the duck hunting trophies, asking her if Fred hadn’t ever mentioned another woman to her. Gulping, Marjo responds, “Why, no, never.”

When Gisèle discovers a packet of unsigned love letters to Fred, she swears she will kill the woman if she ever finds out who she is. In fact, this discovery seems to have awakened in her a passion that she has not felt for years. Gisèle is a workaholic. She lives for her work with troubled teens. When her husband was alive, she had no time for any of his pastimes. But she is about to be confronted with someone else’s passion. Yannick, fell madly in love with Gisèle two years previously when she had been his caseworker. Now, he has decided to straighten his life out so that he can deserve her. He begins to bump into her, literally. On the first occasion, he lifts her wallet, which he then finds a reason to return; unfortunately, he chooses to do so as Gisèle leaves the funeral home. She is so furious with him for stealing from her, and still so angry with Fred, that she collapses in his arms, weeping. Not knowing what else to do, he gives her a joint.

This one episode typifies their interchanges – they are completely ill matched in their ages, education, social graces, and interests. Yet, each time that Yannick intrudes on her life, she is drawn one step closer to someone who truly cares for her. She resists, of course; and, on one occasion, she completely humiliates him. He has bought a thrift store suit and a glorious bunch of flowers, and bicycled halfway across the city to her house, only to find that she is out on a date with an older man. When she returns to find him occupying her driveway, she invites him in and accepts the flowers, but is horrified to hear a proposal of marriage as well. She begins to laugh uncontrollably and then asks Yannick why he is wearing her husband’s suit. Yannick’s devastation is complete. Well, nearly complete. He is left looking very much like the teenager he is, dressed up in his uncle’s clothes, crushed and miserable.

The foils for 19-year old Yannick are Gisèle’s twin children, Louis (François Létourneau) and Louisette (Véronique Beaudet). They are in their late twenties. As twins, they are very close; they discuss everything. And they are of one mind about their mother. She is an old woman. Now that their father is dead, they worry about which of them will have to look after her. They are especially worried about what to do with their father’s ashes and spend considerable time in choosing an urn and deciding what to do with it. Their mother is uninterested in these deliberations, stating that she will not have the urn in her house. Louis thinks he knows why. One night, he had just got into bed with a guy he’s picked up at a bar, when his Aunt Marjo appears in the bedroom (she has her own key) demanding to talk. She has a confession to make. There is a terrible crash and all the windows are blown open. The urn has smashed to bits on the floor. Not knowing what else to do, Louis vacuums his father up with a dust buster.

The central scene of Les Grandes Chaleurs is worth all the rest of its predictable component parts. Gisèle is working in the yard when she notices that her front door is open and that there is music coming from inside. She enters to find that Yannick is in the shower. Symbolically, she leaves her gardening gloves behind as she follows the noise of the running water. What follows is magnetic. Meanwhile, the twins drive up to the house with their father in the trunk… in his vacuum bag. They need to talk things out with their mother. But first they philosophize about life as they sit on the edge of the trunk. They go into the house and try to use one of their mother’s strainers to get the coffee grounds and egg shells out of their father’s ashes. The tension about what will happen next is one of the funniest scenes in Canadian filmmaking.

Clearly, Gisèle chooses love over common sense, despite all of her better instincts and the impediments placed in her way. Les Grandes Chaleurs is a formula movie, but makes such clever use of dialogue and comedic technique that it rewards careful study.

 Evelyn Ellerman