Ivan Reitman warms up Whistler

Ghostbusters mogul blesses a gem from Quebec, and our critic skis to a silver medal

Marie-Helene Bellavance wins Best Actress at Whistler in top prize-winner, 'Les Signes vitaux'

I spent the weekend at Whistler and got excited about snow. Not just the stuff on the mountains. Sure, last month the B.C. ski resort was blessed with the heaviest snowfall of any month in recorded history—5.5 metres—laying down an early base for that Olympic thing in February. And yes, I admit I did a little skiing. I even entered a “celebrity challenge” slalom race and came home with a silver medal that looks convincingly like the real thing. It’s heavy. But what got me excited was the snow onscreen in a Quebec movie called Les Signes vitaux, which played in competition at the 9th annual Whistler Film Festival and won its top prize, the $15,000 Borsos Award for Best New Canadian Feature Film—presented by Hollywood Canadian Ivan Reitman (Ghostbusters). Written and directed by Sopie Deraspe, this exquisite drama is set against the bitter, austere beauty of a Quebec City winter, where snow serves as a bare canvas and a rich metaphor—for the naked  void between sex and death. This is not the  snowman-snow of Quebec’s Winter Carnival. It’s the snow that falls in silent shades of grey and squeaks underfoot, articulating cold, while it buries the past and turns a fresh page.

Les Signes vitaux—which is titled The Living Rate in English (though I’d prefer the literal translation, Vital Signs)—is the compelling story of a  young woman who becomes a volunteer in a palliative care home after the death of her mother. Sounds deadly, I know, and it’s not an easy sell.  But the drama hinges on the tension between this woman’s frustrated search for life amid death and her capricious, carnal romance with a failed musician she refuses to accept as her boyfriend. That’s not all. The woman is a double amputee below the knees. And we’re not talking CGI. She’s played by Marie-Helene Bellevance, who had both legs amputated at the age of 11.

(from left) Ivan Reitman, Jessica Pare, Sophie Deraspe, Niv Fichman

Bellevance is a visual artist and a modern dancer. The movie marks her professional acting debut and her performance is stunning. Resembling a gentler Marie José Croze, she carries the film with astonishing poise and emotional transparency, not to mention a bold candour about her body in nude scenes. It’s no surprise the  jury (Reitman, actress Jessica Paré and producer Niv Fichman) gave her the Best Actress Award, as well as handing the Borsos prize to Sophie Deraspe for this assured second feature—she served as writer, director and cinematographer. Woody Harrelson won Best Actor for his portrayal of a low rent superhero in Peter Stebbings’ Defendor. And for  other Whistler awards go to: Whistler Winners.

I’ve been coming to the Whistler Film Festival every year for six years now. It’s the only festival aside from Cannes and Toronto that I attend on a regular basis. Although it’s hard to get away in the thick of Hollywood’s December release season, I’d hate to miss it. Aside from unveiling gems like Signes vitaux, Whistler serves as an unofficial summit of Canadian cinema. Twinned with the Toronto’s Canadian Film Centre, it’s our fledgling Sundance, a mountain festival dedicated to nourishing new talent while throwing a selective spotlight on Canadian cinema and serving as a sexy four-day salon for the industry. Each year Whistler tries to attract a prominent Canadian filmmaker to chair its Borsos jury. And it’s been gradually working its way through the pantheon, luring such luminaries as Norman Jewison, Atom Egoyan and Donald Sutherland. Hopefully David Cronenberg and James Cameron will show up one of these years. When Ivan first arrived I got the sense that he wondered what he was doing there. But on Friday night he made a warm connection with the audience as the subject of an onstage tribute—where he revealed that, yes, there will be a Ghostbusters III, including roles for the original cast. But Ivan had reason to be distracted during his visit to Whistler—it marked the opening weekend of Up in the Air, which he produced and his son, Jason, directed. By the end of the festival, he was clearly enjoying himself, and no doubt relieved that the movie had glowing reviews and a spectacular opening in its initial limited release.

Reitman told an amusing story, which I’d heard before, about have a smart plan as a young man from Toronto to set up a submarine sandwich business in Montreal, where they didn’t have such things. His father told him he didn’t think there would be enough “magic” in it to keep him happy. Then he said when his own son, Jason, had his eye on medical school, going against the grain of typical fatherly advice, he repeated his dad’s words and advised him that there wouldn’t be enough magic in it.

I found myself moderating a panel with another father-son producer-director duo, Kevin and Jacob Tierney, respectively the producer and director of The Trotsky, a comedy about a Jewish high school kid (Jay Baruchel) who believes he’s the reincarnation of the great Russian revolutionary who died with an ice pick in his head. Kevin co-wrote and produced a milestone in Canadian cinema—Bon Cop, Bad Cop, our first major bilingual movie and the top-grossing Canadian film of all time. Jacob, who’s been acting since he was six, was a big-enough child star that Baruchel remembers him as the guy whose career all the other child stars wanted. And as writer-director of The Trotsky, a witty and original second feature, he seems to have made the transition to adulthood quite deftly.

I couldn’t help wondering how these guys got a movie financed with such a pinko title. But apparently a lot of people didn’t have a clue who Trotsky was. According to Jacob, they just thought ‘trotsky’  was a funny word, especially with ‘the’ in front of it. They do remember Leon in the former Soviet Union, however. And the filmmakers have been contact by four keen fRussian distributors who are interested in picking up the film since it premiered at TIFF in September.

The year’s other crowd-pleasing Canadian comedy is Rob Stefaniuk’s Suck, starring Borsos jury member Jessica Paré as a bass-playing vampire, won the Cadillac People’s Choice Award for most popular film. All these movies were at TIFF, so I don’t necessarily go to Whistler to gorge on unseen films — although I did catch the Canadian premiere of a sweet, fascinating documentary about the ukelele called The Mighty Uke, which was followed by a roof-raising live performance by two dozen young musicians from B.C.’s Langley Ukelele Ensemble.

What really draws to me to this festival every year, aside from the skiing, is that there’s room to breathe and time to talk. One minute I’m having a casual conversation with  Ivan Reitman, asking him what I should ask James Cameron in my phone interview the next morning (“Ask him if he still believes in 3-D”). The next I’m chatting with producer Niv Fichman about Gunless, his western comedy starring Paul Gross, and hearing him explain how he’s going to dispense the $25 million of “envelope” financing that he’ll receive from Telefilm to reward the box-office success of Paschendaaele (He’s going to fund a whole bunch of low budget movies by young Canadian filmmakers).

Whistler is not another vast launch pad or publicity mill like Cannes and Toronto. It’s intimate, energetic and still growing. In other words, it’s a festival. At the end of the night, pretty well everyone you want to talk to is one room. With luxurious parties and a warm vibe,  the event strikes a rare balance between glam and homey.

And for nine years, the festival has upheld a lovely tradition. Each year, to honour the legacy of filmmaker Philip Borsos (The Grey Fox), his family is on hand join the festivities and see the movies in the Borsos competition—namely his widow, Beret Borsos, and their two sons, Angus and Silas. Angus, by the way, is a budding filmmaker and has his father’s lyrical eye. He’s just made an eloquent 35-minute piece titled Never Never Land, an existential skateboard video starring Silas. It’s not really a skateboard video. It’s more like a French movie about the ennui of idle youth who aren’t young as they used to be. It’s sad, funny and exquisitely composed. Philip would be proud.

As for the skiing, I should come clean about that medal. I was part of  a team in the festival’s Celebrity Ski Challenge. The team won silver, and we all got medals. We were led by a ringer, Shauna Hardy Mishaw, the festival’s executive-director and co-founder, who’s lived in Whistler for two decades. She knows how to throw a festival, and she can sure ski. On this frigid, sunny day, she blasted down the course and scored the event’s fastest time. But I think I held us back: if I hadn’t caught an edge on my second run, I’m sure we would have won gold. This photo, by the way, is not me:

A scene from 'Mount St. Elias' which won Whistler's Best Mountain Film Award

Ivan Reitman warms up Whistler

  1. Mr. Johnson, thanks for the notes from Banff and I'm jealous about the skiing.

    One question I have for you: have you seen the big Québec hit movie De Père en Flic (Fathers and Guns was the English title)? I had the chance to see a special showing. I found it very funny and an enjoyable film to watch.

  2. Thanks for the Whistler update Brian. Definitely one of my favourite film festivals. Still small but fun and substantial.

  3. I HATE DEAF WHISTER WITH HEARING AIDS.

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