Nuages sur la ville (Clouds Over the City) Commentary

Shot in black and white, Nuages sur la ville/ Clouds Over the City (2009) is the first full-length feature film by writer-director, Simon Galiero, whose work up to that time had been devoted to short fiction films and documentaries. Galiero uses Nuages to explore the gap between illusion and reality, between the intellectual seduction of big ideas and the necessity of living the life we have. He accomplishes his goal by focusing on four sets of characters whose lives intersect: an émigré writer and his daughter, a visiting writer and his nephew, two brothers, the émigré writer and his grandson. Galiero weaves seemingly unconnected scenes together as he slowly connects the characters to the writer, Jean-Paul St. Jean (Jean Pierre Lefebvre).

Jean-Paul is at an impasse: the creative writing that made him famous is in the past, his wife is dead, his daughter has her own life, he has nothing left to say. His publisher is no longer interested in his work; it seems that readers have moved on to other authors. The invigorating world of the mind seems to have deserted Jean-Paul. He makes his living as a part-time administrator in a welfare office, where he is bound by rules and regulations and seems to help no one.

Ironically, there is to be a tribute to Jean-Paul for his contribution to literature. An old friend, another writer, is travelling from Poland with his nephew to give the tribute. But we watch Jean-Paul as he is now, not the great author of revolutionary vision, but a broken man in the kitchen with his dog, trying over and over again to write something: he makes meals, he vacuums the floor, he plays children’s games, he stares at his computer. He writes a sentence: “I’ve nothing left to say; I’m already dead.”

Director of Cinematography, Nicolas Canniccioni uses the camera to paint the visual leitmotif that ties the movie together. A pattern of light and shadow is cast on the earth by clouds moving across the sky and symbolically across Jean-Paul’s life. Light streams in through a window casting flickering shadows on the writer and the physical objects in his house. The camera turns frequently to aircraft passing above before returning to the reality of daily life.

The other characters in the film serve to emphasize the theme established by Galiero. Two brothers provide both humour and pathos. The older brother, Maurice (Marcel Sabourin) has returned to the city from the northern bush to look for work. He is nearly destitute and clearly out of his element. He associates freedom with the north; the city feels like a cage to him. He spills coffee on himself, misses appointments for job interviews, loses his keys; the only work he has been able to find for himself is a job delivering flyers. It doesn’t even pay the rent. His brother, Michel (Robert Morin) on the other hand, has a car, and an apartment, and a job teaching aerobics. Galiero playfully lets the audience see all these accomplishments before revealing that Michel is a paraplegic. The government administrator for the rent-adjusted apartment where Michel lives is Jean-Paul. This is the central irony of the film: that Maurice and Jean-Paul have their heads in the clouds, dreaming of what used to be, or might have been, while Michel just gets on with life. Eventually he is able to find a job for his able-bodied brother as a guard at the zoo. Maurice hates the job, feeling as though it is him in the cage, not the monkeys.

Meanwhile Janusz (Alexander Bisping) and his uncle Jacek (Téo Spichelski) arrive from Poland. They pay an initial visit to Jean-Paul; Jacek finds the shell of the man he once knew, asking Jean-Paul if he wants him to deliver a tribute or the elegy at his funeral. Jacek has never abandoned the ideals of his youth, nor the anger that drove him to become a writer. His nephew is uninterested in these big ideas. His real reason for coming to Canada is to experience the wilderness. While they wait for the date of the tribute to Jean-Paul, Jacek and Janusz go camping in the bush, where they promptly get lost and argue happily about life, literature, and philosophy for several days. But, before they find their way back to their car, they completely miss the tribute to Jean-Paul.

While Janusz and Jacek are out of town, Jean-Paul sells his house and moves in with his daughter until he finds an apartment. He discovers that, despite her successful career as a physician, Julie (Julie Ménard) is lonely and finds her life meaningless. She is completely disconnected from her teenaged son, Martin (Frédérick Côté), who is equally bored with life. He plays Wi by himself, cooks his own meals, destroys fences, and sits in corners alone at parties. Jean-Paul asks Julie if he was a completely self-absorbed father; she avoids answering him by remarking that we are who we are and that we all make choices. In other words, yes, he was so involved in his great thoughts and his writing that he forgot to be a father. Then she tells him to stop pretending. He stares at her. It is as though he has been waiting for someone to give him permission to live his life. He smiles and says, “Then let’s pretend to have a picnic on Saturday.”

Nuages sur la ville won the Feature Film Award in 2009 at the Montreal Festival of New Cinema.

Evelyn Ellerman