This film tells the fact-based, rags-to-riches story of an ordinary woman who became a popular and successful folk musician in the 1930s, remaining a best-selling Quebec recording artist until her death at 46 – but it is one which may be a little inaccessible due simply to the particular type of music she performed and the kind of life she lived offstage. It may be worth the effort, as this is a charming and honest account of unexpected fame and the challenges that went with it, as well as a portrait of the woman behind it all.
La Bolduc’s director, Francois Bouvier, is a filmmaker who works exclusively within Quebec, producing French-language films which are recognized as excellent within his own region but receive little notice outside his home province and virtually none outside Canada. The same may be said for the subject of his most recent film. Mary Bolduc, née Travers (Debbie Lynch-White), was a plain, unassuming, working-class French-Canadian girl from the Gaspé region of Quebec. The area bordered on a region populated by Irish and Scottish immigrants, which had a later influence on her music.
Following a brief flash-forward, in which we catch a glimpse of Mary Bolduc’s later, more complicated life, the film begins by introducing young Mary Travers as a shy teenager, coaxed by her friend to perform at an amateur musical show organised by her church. She reluctantly takes the stage and performs a piece using the harmonica, familiar folk music she has grown up with. Although this type of music is considered rustic and inferior by those managing the event, her audience of working-class French Canadians is wildly enthusiastic. She meets her future husband, Edouard Bolduc, at such an event, and for a time her life revolves around her husband, domestic responsibilities, and the many children she regularly bears, and almost as frequently buries – six of her children died in infancy. Her music during these years is limited to performances at family gatherings, where her talent is obvious, but she has no further ambition.
When Edouard Bolduc loses his factory job, like many during the depression of the 1930s, Mary reluctantly accepts engagements to play or sing at local performances. In spite of her initial reserve, her talent soon wins her more appearances, and ultimately a recording contract. Mary’s unique style of music, traditional Quebec folk music but with Irish overtones and a great deal of her own personal technique and sense of humour, is a resounding success throughout the province. Her speciality is ‘turlutte,’ a form of music specific to Quebec. The form exists mainly in lively folk songs, including many pro-union and protest songs of the working class, as well as in some traditional dance music and comic songs. Its main feature is the use of vocalisations, some wordless and some using repeated words or phrases, that follow specific rules, and which range from vocal imitations of musical instruments to something like French scat singing, to rapid-fire, rhythmic ‘filler’ syllables forming complex patterns. Mary, or ‘La Bolduc’ as she soon came to be known, was considered particularly adept at turlutte, and re-popularized it outside the rural community and among the younger generation of Quebecois.
The film’s secondary plot deals with the Bolduc family life and the changes caused by Mary’s success, paralleled with the women’s suffrage movement and feminism in general, which were then on the rise. Although determined to do what she must to provide for her family, Mary was a traditionalist who felt uneasy becoming the breadwinner. Even when her recordings had become popular, she continued for some time to insist on performing under the name Mrs Edouard Bolduc. Her growing enthusiasm for music and public performance, and the fortune she was earning were things she remained apologetic about to the end of her life, and an issue that caused conflict between herself and her family for years. Mary struggled with the limitations placed on her by tradition and family expectations, such as being unable to claim the money she earned performing, which by law belonged to her husband. Mary’s life story is told side by side with that of a minor character, a female friend who is an ardent suffragette. This parallel highlights Mary’s limitations, but the film, refreshingly, takes Mary, her concerns and her point of view, seriously in spite of her naivety and lack of progressive attitudes. The plot takes a surprising turn in concluding that Mary Bolduc’s efforts were as brave, and possibly as influential, as the more public battles of the official women’s movement.
An enjoyable, well-made biography, and an entertaining introduction to an unfamiliar musical genre.
More from Quebec…
Quebec filmmaking has received positive attention from the French-speaking world, but less recognition elsewhere. Some outstanding achievements:
Mommy, youthful genius and international award-winner Xavier Dolan’s incredible, heartbreaking 2014 drama of a single mother struggling to do the right thing for her mentally ill son.
Enemy (2013) is a dark, confusing drama by Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario), in which a man is pitted against his own alter-ego. Villeneuve now produces English language movies, including Enemy, but is also well-known for his earlier French work, the Oscar-nominated 2010 drama Incendies, about siblings who travel to their mother’s homeland in the Middle East to solve a family mystery.
Experimental filmmaker Anne Emond wrote and directed the unusual, uncomfortable 2016 biography/drama Nelly, based on the highly provocative writings of Quebec author Nelly Arcan.
Gabrielle (2013) is former television director Louise Archambault’s humorous, sensitive depiction of a young developmentally disabled woman’s efforts to gain a measure of independence, and her family’s acceptance of her relationship with her boyfriend.
Former political scientist Phillippe Falardeau specialises in heartwarming comedies. Two of his best are Monsieur Lazhar (2011), about an Algerian immigrant who teaches high school in Montreal which dealing with the family tragedy he left behind; and My Internship In Canada (‘Guibord S’en Va-t-en Guerre’), a silly but fun comedy about an overwhelmed rural Quebec MP and his fish-out-of-water Haitian assistant.