Tendresse ordinaire Commentary

It is winter on Québec’s North Shore. An establishing shot, portrays a young couple in a room. He sits on a rocking chair playing the fiddle. She sits cross-legged on the floor, looking up at him. They smile at one another, the picture of contentment. The room is starkly furnished. It looks like a cold room, but the man and the woman are warmly dressed in plaid shirts and completely absorbed in the moment. It is a scene to which the camera returns throughout Ordinary Tenderness (Tendresse ordinaire) as the woman, Esther (Esther Auger), awaits her husband, Jocelyn’s (Jocelyn Bérubé), return from up north at Shefferville where he works as a lumberjack.  To pass the time, she talks with her friend Bernadette (Luce Guilbault); they bake a cake; Esther thinks back to times when Jocelyn is at home.

Two story-lines weave through the film: that of the young wife and that of the husband. Esther’s story is expressed as a sort of suspended animation. Her movements are slow; her speech quiet and uninflected. Her mind is obviously elsewhere. She may talk with Bernadette, look at photos, tell stories and bake a cake, but it’s as if she is incomplete. She drifts from one room to the next without seeming to inhabit any of them. Jocelyn’s story is characterized by movement; he is on the way home, taking whatever form of transportation is handy. His singleness of purpose is reinforced by aerial shots of the long black line of a train slicing its way through miles of snow and forest. Yet, Jocelyn is just as self-contained as Esther: he is on the train in body only. He reads, while the other men drink and flirt with women. Even when he plays music with friends in a hotel room,  his performance is reminiscent of the music he plays for Esther.  Each character seems caught emotionally between moments of daily life and the memories that those moments evoke. There is nothing exceptional about Esther and Jocelyn; they are two, quiet, ordinary people whose love for one another expresses itself in an exquisite tenderness.

The film avoids traditional western notions of plot as much as possible. Esther is in a stasis that focuses on her feelings of isolation, loneliness and boredom. Jocelyn is in similar stasis, though his physical self is being transported back to Esther. In Ordinary Tenderness (Tendresse ordinaire), Director Jacques Leduc employs an eastern approach to narrative, which is the antithesis of the western tradition. Rather than presenting an event string punctuated with emotional reactions, which is how western culture understands narrative – a series of “and then and a-ha” moments, Leduc concentrates on the emotional state of affairs between events. He relies on the Asian aesthetic tradition that privileges sophisticated explorations of emotional states. These two very different approaches to narrative render completely different surface texts that can seem incomprehensible, or unrealized to audiences aware of only one tradition. A story that is completely event-driven might seem trivial or superficial to an audience versed in the emotionally nuanced complexity of eastern narrative. A story where nothing appears to actually happen might seem boring and pointless to an audience immersed in western narrative conventions. 

Leduc marries this narrative strategy with realism, a style that attempts, through a concentration on the banal, on the ordinary, to focus the gaze of the audience on the moment. Leduc accomplishes this in part through a fragmented series of images. In fact, he uses realism to refuse the audience the opportunity to speculate or extrapolate. The viewer is never allowed to wonder who this couple is, how they met, what their plans are, how they fit into their community, what their lives are going to be like in the future, or any of the other mental exercises that event-driven plots encourage. Instead he focuses the viewer on individual emotional moments of longing, frustration, and reverie.

Leduc is at his best in evoking the emotional life of Esther, who inhabits the physical space that she and Jocelyn share when he is home from the woods. A clever pairing of domesticity and unease is conveyed through a series of Vermeer-like tableaux. Through a series of doorways, we see the two women doing something: baking a cake, looking at photos. The walls around the doorframes through which the audience observes the women are hung with reminders of Jocelyn and Esther’s life: framed photos, musical instruments. These scenes are lit with a clarity that require the audience to focus on the present. It is Esther whose emotions swirl back and forth in time; but the audience is constantly reminded that its focus is on her reactions. It is not invited to participate vicariously in her fond memories.

Realism requires a spare setting in which the viewer is aware of individual objects and their relationship to one another. Esther and Jocelyn’s home is so simply furnished that the audience is aware not only of their possessions, but of the building itself: the walls, the floors, the windows. It contains only the physical evidence of their lives together, giving no hint of the deep feeling between them.

The realism of the movie is nowhere more evident than in the dialogue and actions in which the characters engage. Bernadette and Esther spend what seems like real time in baking a cake. The simple questions about where the flour is and how much sugar to use are almost technical.  The body movements are slow and assured. The conversation is banal. There is neither hilarity nor despair; they just make a cake. Theirs is a friendship in which things are understood; and, in that, it parallels the relationship between Esther and Jocelyn. They are bound by a depth of feeling that requires no outward display.

Ordinary Tenderness (Tendresse ordinaire) is indeed a movie where nothing happens; it isn’t meant to. The movie’s poetic montage of love and longing is simple and almost metaphysical. The audience is afforded a sympathetic gaze into a room occupied by two people who are only whole when they are together. While the experience of the film privileges the audience, it becomes claustrophobic for Esther. The intimate view of her inner life is nicely balanced in the final scene when she changes into colourful, lighter clothes and bursts outside the house to feel the fresh air and sunlight on her skin. The moment is over.

Jacques Leduc has a 45 year history as a filmmaker. While at the NFB, he explored the nexus between journalism and fiction in a genre called Direct Cinema, which was developed in Québec and the United States from the late 1904s to the early 1960s, and which is similar in some ways to cinéma vérité in France. Leduc’s fascination with everyday life is evidenced in Chronique de la vie quotidienne (1977-1978), a series of seven films corresponding to the days of the week that records the daily lives of ordinary people.

Evelyn Ellerman