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le Grand serpent du monde

Year: 1999
Language: French
Format: 16 mm Colour
Runtime: 98min

Director: Yves Dion
Producer: Monique Létourneau
Executive Producer: Doris Girard
Writer: Monique Proulx
Cinematographer: Paul Van der Linden
Editor: Yves Dion; Monique Fortier
Sound: Michel Gauvin: Louis Hone; Andy Malcolm
Music: Gaëtan Gravel; Serge LaForest

City bus driver Tom Paradise (Murray Head, best known for his role in John Schlesinger’s 1971 classic Sunday Bloody Sunday and his 1984 hit “One Night in Bangkok”) works the night shift. Each night, among the casual passengers – workers going home to sleep, tough-looking teenagers – Tom meets his regulars. There is the lady who smuggles her small dog onto the bus hidden under her coat. There is the young man who gets off each night at a cemetery and disappears among the headstones. There is his friend Jean-Pierre (Jean LeMaigre) who, though married and successful, is profoundly unhappy. And there is Monsieur (Gabriel Arcand), a man who suffers from some undefined mental condition and who regards “Monsieur the bus driver” as his friend. Monsieur appears nightly, crossing the road in front of the headlights. He always looks as though he is escaping from somewhere and complains about the “walls” closing in. Somehow the movement of the bus and Tom’s tactful acceptance calm Monsieur to the point of near reason.

Tom is unfailingly solicitous and polite to all his passengers, many of whom are lonely. His responses are inviting, yet non-committal He seems intuitively to know how to satisfy a small need so that his passengers are comfortable. One night, Monsieur approaches a construction worker in the almost empty bus, telling him that he is sitting in a seat that is reserved for him. The sleepy worker refuses to move telling Monsieur that he is crazy. Tom leans back, pointing to a seat opposite, indicating to Monsieur that this is his reserved seat. A bond has been struck between Tom and his eccentric passenger. From then on, Monsieur takes the “reserved” seat.

Indeed, Tom is unfailingly polite to everyone. When his mother (Huguette Oligny) calls, he says all the right things. “Yes, I love you… Yes, I will come to dinner.” When his girlfriend Sarah (Elisabeth Walling) calls, he says exactly the same things. He is playful and considerate with Sarah. When they are alone, they are perfectly happy. Yet Sarah does not inhabit the same emotional space as Tom. She is a realist. She wants to have a family and a normal life. He resists. His dream of endless freedom keeps him from assuming what he clearly considers to be the shackles of everyday life.

When Tom passes a motorist in distress, parked beside the freeway with her door open and slouched in the front seat, he stops the bus. On approaching the woman (Louise Portal), who is obviously the worse for drink, he proffers, not a general offer of assistance, but a comfortable place to sit in his bus. A tactful way to get a drunk off the road. She accepts. To his surprise, he discovers that she is Carmen, a former lover with whom he had spent part of his youth trying to re-create Jack Kerouac’s idealistic vision of freedom in On the Road.

Tom has never really grown past those early carefree days. His head is still filled with panoramic views of the Grand Canyon and the sweeping skylines of the American desert. He glorifies the whole notion of movement. Early in the story, he tries to convince Sarah, who is half his age, to come with him to San Francisco and Mexico. “Life without movement is death,” he says. She has no interest in aimless wandering through the landscape of Tom’s youth, replying that all sorts of people never go anywhere and are perfectly happy. Still, he dreams about making that trip again as his city bus eats up the road in its nightly circle. When Tom gets off work, he swims laps, naked, in his apartment’s swimming pool: back and forth, round and round.

One of the occasional passengers on the bus is Tom’s sister Anne (June Wallack), who calls out “Surprise!” each time she boards. But her conversation holds no surprises. Each time she tracks him down, it is to tell him her troubles and to try to get him to visit their parents. Clearly, the only way she can contact her brother is by getting on his bus – he is always on the move and he never calls. Their father’s descent into dementia terrifies Tom.

One night, Anaïs (Zoé Latraverse) gets on the bus. She is reading On the Road. At first, she ignores Tom; he is, after all, twice her age. He is fascinated by her independence and by her determination to go to Mexico and San Francisco, just as he once did. They begin to talk. Occasionally at the end of his shift, they stand together looking over the city, but imagining the Grand Canyon. Tom finds himself disengaging from Sarah and drawn to Anaïs, who gently pushes him away, saying that she is not about to become the second woman in his life.

Tom’s becomes infatuated with Anaïs, who is now part of his sleeping dreams and his waking vision of freedom. But even Tom realizes that their relationship is ephemeral. He asks her repeatedly to meet him “outside”; that is, in daylight and away from the bus. Monsieur notices the sexual tension between them and asks one night if they are lovers. “Not yet,” jokes Tom. Anaïs is silent.

The night that Tom’s fantasy ends is, on the face of it, a night like all the others. The dog lady (France Labonté) comes on to the bus, beaming. Her previous dog had been run over, but now she has a replacement. But nothing else is right n Tom’s world. It is the night before he and Anaïs are supposed to leave on their journey. He has left Sarah, even though she desperately tries to keep him by suddenly offering to go with him on his trip. Monsieur staggers across the road in front of the bus as usual, but keeps on walking, waving his arms and raving at his mental demons.

Then Tom stops for the female motorist. As they sit in the bus catching up on old ties, she tells him that they have a daughter. He begins to suspect that Anaïs is that daughter and is horrified at what might have happened. Later, when Anaïs gets on the bus, he confronts her with what he thinks is the truth. Does she know that she is his daughter? Did she know all along? What have the last weeks been all about?

Le Grand Serpent du Monde enjoys strong performances from Murray Head as Tom and from Gabriel Arcand, who received a nomination for a Genie for his portrayal of Monsieur and the film was nominated for three Jutras. Zoé Latraverse is captivating as the mysterious and secretive Anaïs; the audience is never quite sure what Anaïs will do or say and she certainly keeps Tom Paradise off balance from beginning to end. The director, Yves Dion, is best known as an editor, having edited countless projects from Claude Jutra’s Wow (1970) to Anne Claire Porier’s Tu as crie: Let Me Go (1997) before making Le grande serpent, his fourth feature length work as director.

Originally published in Canadian Film Online

Additional notes by Steve Gravestock

By: Evelyn Ellerman