Dream Life: Politics of Desire in Quebec's First Woman-Directed Film

Dream Life: Politics of Desire in Quebec's First Woman-Directed Film

Mireille Dansereau was the first woman in French Quebec to direct a feature film, exactly 50 years ago. Exploring the tricky relationship between Women’s Liberation and the prison of yearning, Dream Life dismantled depictions of desire – and today, Dansereau speaks to Greta Rainbow to unfold just how much has changed in five decades.

Collage has always seemed, to me, to belong to women. It’s a craft art form practised at the kitchen table by children folding valentines, mothers pasting hair locks into scrapbooks, and teenage girls fashioning vision boards out of ads ripped from magazines. Collagers scrounge, and make do with scraps. Their medium is the mental ability to see one reality and rearrange its elements until reality is made anew.

For 20-something women in 1970s Montreal, reality dragged. Dream Life (La vie rêvée, 1971), French Canada’s first fiction feature directed by a woman, imagines two film studio assistants feeding on surrealist summer fantasies. The loose narrative is that they’re obsessed with an older male colleague, but it’s just scaffolding to show off a gorgeous assemblage of images pulled from the feminine subconscious. (If there is such a universal thing; the director still wonders.) Mireille Dansereau’s micro budget film, shot on 16mm, received a 50th anniversary colour restoration last year, widening access for everyone hungry for more after Věra Chytilová’s Daisies.

Chytilová, director of the Czech New Wave classic, rejected feminist labelling her whole life. Dansereau didn’t know Dream Life was feminist while she was making it – she didn’t really know what feminism was, in general – though these days she quotes Laura Mulvey. She was surrounded by masculine energy at the production cooperative she co-founded, where a Marxist-Leninist ideology reigned. Men said there was no way their girlfriends had visions like the ones she wanted them to help her shoot. Probably, they hated the daddy issues. “I simply wanted to show the inner world of women and the outer world of men,” Dansereau tells me now. “[Commercial] images made me feel I did not exist anymore as a woman. And the men – the father, the boss, the priest – those men and the idea of them were overwhelming me.” 

So I stopped seeing scenes of confrontation between the sexes as eye-roll evidence of classical Second-Wave Women’s Lib, and instead quotidian missives from a world before there was language to critique it. Most resonates. I love Dream Life’s twin flames for their little acts, like speeding past a man on the sidewalk who dared to overtake them. They are placed in a juxtaposition popular in fiction lately: the one who lives for art and the one who lives for love (having sex, a family). The author feels the struggle between the two within her, but she ultimately – necessarily? – identifies with the artist. The examined life is usually the righteous one. See: the Neapolitan novels; Sally Rooney’s Beautiful World, Where Are You; Elif Batuman’s The Idiot; any Sheila Heti. 

For Dansereau, it was complicated. After several years in London attending the Royal College of Art, where she won a major prize for her student short film (Compromise, 1968), she moved back to Quebec. Suddenly she was “much less free” but close to her mother, who was ill. She would never be as free again. She married, and became a single mother to two boys; her filmmaker husband fled to Hollywood. “My desire to keep making films never ended,” Dansereau, who at 79 is still working in the industry, says. “But it was a big fight to do it, always. This was a time of no help from the government, no daycare. There was nobody to sustain me. My child hated cinema, because his father left him for it.”

Neither did she find the solace that other women provide. Surprisingly, Dansereau “did not know about friendship” like the one she depicts, making this too a fantasy. Virginie and Isabelle meet in the bathroom at work. The scene of assessing one another through the mirror from a polite distance of a few sinks away, and the comment that seals an understanding of equalness in beauty and politics, still happens in the “ladies’ rooms” I enter all the time. Virginie draws and paints, and makes collages out of consumer culture detritus (a bombshell blonde shooting lipstick bullets etc.; it’s very Society6 but before making fun of ads had come full circle). She is the sage in her sunny studio, imparting wisdom on Isabelle, the would-be writer who thinks that nobody reads anymore. “You do it for yourself, not others,” the painter argues. 

The lesson could end there, but Dansereau keeps them going, accurate on the endlessness of excuses a woman gives before applying herself. The writer cites lack of talent, lack of desire to cultivate any, and no apartment of her own to do it in if she did. The camera enters the bourgeois home done up in shades of brown, cluttered with decorative masks and bowls. “It smells of cabbage soup, my dad loves it,” drones Isabelle in voice-over. The archetypal matron – fat, aproned – opens a pot to steam up the frame and it feels offensive, because we understand her as the mother of gorgeous, thin, stylish Isabelle. So, this is what she’s fighting against. We find her in her bedroom, dressed in a kaftan and beating African drums listlessly; there’s a hilarity to the drama of a caged dreamer. 

Social change in the ‘60s and ‘70s happened so fast it left gaping holes between generations and social classes. Amused by this new fact of life, Dansereau devised characters from different camps and forced them to face each other, another collage. In the public pool changing room, Virginie and Isabelle stand apart from the women who shield their bodies with towels. In the cemetery where widows stand scowling, they sit and eat fruit naked.

Soft-focus images like these risk reading as male fantasy, but the cuts between them make us sure they’re what a girl wants – which is, of course, tangled with what she thinks a man wants her to want. It almost wasn’t this way. “I was not there for the first edit, the guys said they didn’t want me to be. When I saw it I said, ‘This is not my film.’ The dreams were not integrated,” says Dansereau. She parted with the editor and took to the cooperative’s editing table that was only free at night. “I knew what I wanted. Things are not logical in my head. I heard many times, ‘We don’t understand.’ I was searching for the logic of the unconscious.”

The director goes Freudian in the film’s climax, a reckoning with the paternal to the extreme. I don’t think it could’ve been made if Dansereau had stayed abroad. Dream Life is bizarre and plucky in a way that feels so Montreal, a city of weirdos that I fell in love with when I moved there aged 18 and haven’t found a match for since I left. Like Leonard Cohen said, “I have to keep coming back to Montreal to renew my neurotic affiliations.” 

The original French title of the film suggests not a life so perfect it’s a dream, but a life spent dreaming. More than making art or offspring, this is an act done for no one but oneself. 

The 2022 restoration of Dream Life screened at Metrograph in New York in November. A Blu-Ray and streaming release is planned for later this year.

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