A City Symphony within a Noir: Romantic and National Ideals in Whispering City

Québec Productions Corporation

by Yaelim Nam Volume 23, Issue 7 / July 2019 16 minutes (3790 words)

Produced by Québec Productions Corporation and released in 1947, Whispering City and La Forteresse (The Fortress) were shot in English and French upon the insistence of the executive producer Paul L’Anglais. 1 The overall structure of the films reflects the director Fédor Ozep’s tendency to deploy narrative and stylistic elements from a hybridization of various national cultures. 2 Ozep uses various melodramatic and film noir conventions to portray a nationally inflected film, precisely through the choice of music, the plot and thematic elements pertaining to the characters, and the emphasis on the landscape of Québec City. In this essay, I will discuss how Whispering City, beyond using an almost all-Canadian cast, finds more favor with a Canadian audience by demonstrating strong nationalist ideals with an excerpt of a composition by André Mathieu, the anxieties concerning the advent of modernism, and the attempt to merge music and landscape to construct a national character. My analysis of the film will primarily focus on the English version of the film, but many of the reviews I rely on are precisely about the French version, which was simultaneously shot with different actors.

Mary Roberts as Mary Anderson

The mysterious and dramatic story of both versions takes place in the old Québec City and the breath-taking Montmorency Falls. A young American journalist, Marie Roberts (Mary Anderson), stumbles on the illness of a once famous actress, and finds out that her husband’s death may have been a peculiar case of murder. Marie is not aware that the possible suspect of this enigmatic case may be Albert Frederic (Paul Lukas), a prominent lawyer and a noteworthy patron of the arts, who seems quite perturbed by the woman’s interest in the past case. Albert wishes to become a celebrated patron of arts when Michel Lacoste (Helmut Dantine), a young composer whom Albert sponsors, is about to give the premiere performance of his orchestral piece entitled Concerto de Québec. However, Michel is not happy and has trouble finalizing his concerto since his dysfunctional relationship with his wife Blanche Lacoste (Joy Lafleur), a neurotic who dreadfully abhors his music, worsens to the point that she commits suicide when left alone at home. By inflicting Michel with alcohol the night of his wife’s death, Albert successfully convinces Michel that he is the culprit behind Blanche’s death, and promises him to cover the supposed crime in exchange for a mission: to eliminate the female journalist Marie who became a menace to Albert’s social position. In the climactic scene at the top of the Montmorency Falls, viewers are almost sure that Michel has pushed the young journalist off the cliff, just to learn that the two in fact fell in love and were on their way to uncover the wrongdoings of Albert. In the end, the latter is arrested once and for all; the young couple is finally free to be together, and of course, the orchestra premiere ends in success and Michel becomes a new emerging artist with his beautiful Concerto.

The orchestral piece of the Concerto de Québec can be heard several times throughout the film, adding a sublime effect and stirring the emotions of the viewers in climactic moments. Sometimes performed solo by Michel on the piano, and sometimes with a full orchestra during the rehearsal and premiere scene, one can sense by the end of the film that the repeated motifs of this late-romantic melody is an important element of the film. The music is originally André Mathieu’s Concerto no.3 in C minor op. 25 for piano and orchestra, specifically the second movement in andante. The Montreal-born composer André Mathieu first created the piece as a piano solo in 1941, and added the orchestral parts and finished the entire concerto in 1943, just before his fourteenth birthday. Indeed, born from musician parents, Mathieu was a musical prodigy and made his name known around the world from a very young age. Having a very sensitive ear for notes and musical chords with a creativity and imagination way beyond his age, Mathieu signed his first musical contract at the age of 4 with three pieces he composed: “Le Père Noël,” “Étude sur les Noires,” and “Les Gros Chars.” 3 He gave his first recital in 1935 at the age of six where he included more compositions along the Concertino no.1. 4 He then expanded his repertoire and played various compositions by renowned artists such as Beethoven, Debussy, Schumann, Bach, etc. He worked and studied in New York and Paris; and settled definitively in Canada in 1947.

Helmet Dantine as Michel Lacoste

Throughout his early years, Mathieu was the center of attention in the world of classical music. The release year of the bilingual films La Forteresse/_Whispering City_ was also the apogee of Mathieu’s career as a star composer and pianist. The film proved successful and definitively set Mathieu as a “modern romantic” composer. 5 The popularity of the Concerto de Québec caught the attention of the Southern Music Publishing Co. from Toronto who then published the piano arrangement in 1948. 6 Despite his active career in the most renowned concert halls and in the proximity of world-class people such as Albert Einstein and the late romantic composer Sergei Rachmaninoff (who often suggested Mathieu will surely succeed him), Mathieu’s popularity had declined fast by the 1950s with profound changes in the French Canadian post-war society and the rise of modernism. 7 The public was more preoccupied with new musical genres and artistic regards, and the consequent disinterest in Mathieu’s neo-Romantic melodies slowly brought down the artist to an unfortunate fate. At age twenty, alcohol was already an indispensable element of his life, and by the 50s, Mathieu was left with no connection with the musical world. 8 Nicholson remarks that it is strange how, with the exception of the Concerto de Québec, none of Mathieu’s works was edited or diffused on paper after 1948. 9 In 1953, he sent the Concerto to the conductor Leopold Stokowski, also known for his appearance in Disney’s animated film Fantasia to be played at the Carnegie Hall; 10 in 1962, he asked for a bursary from the Canada Council for the Arts; 11 in 1967, he rigorously worked on his Rhapsodie Romantique in the hopes Wilfrid Pelletier would accept it for the Montreal Symphony Orchestra; 12 at last, he planned a Québec tour in 1968. 13 All attempts failed. His desperation made him dive into Pianothons from early on, an inhumane marathon of piano playing for which he set world records and beat his personal best by playing and improvising for more than 20 hours non-stop in front of a public. 14 Nevertheless, the experience brought him very insignificant revenues and the musical landscape of Québec neglected his historical venture. 15 In June 6, 1968, at the age of 36, Mathieu was found dead in his room and was buried in the cemetery of Côte-des-Neiges in Montreal, completely anonymous and penniless. 16

Many critics acclaim the choice of Mathieu’s Concerto no. 3 as being a salient point of the film, but take on a reluctant attitude towards the scenario. For instance, the critic Roger Duhamel writes in Feuilleton des Spectacles that the disadvantage of the film lies in its mediocre plot, inspired by a crime novel “without originality.” 17 Another article from Le Cinéma Canadien states that the story is “assez banal, quoiqu’un peu supérieur à ce qu’on voit ordinairement dans ce genre. 18 (“much banal, albeit somewhat superior to what we ordinarily see in this kind of genre.”) The critics nevertheless seem to be very satisfied with the choice of Andre Mathieu’s music and the cinematographic elements flaunting “the beauty of Québec and the surroundings,” 18 which may seem especially more endearing to those who are already familiar with the sites shown on screen. An article from Le Canada describes the success of the French version, reporting: “Tous les Canadiens doivent se réjouir que le second grand film tourné dans leur pays soit une si belle réussite tant au point de vue technique qu’au point de vue artistique” (“All Canadians should rejoice that the second great film shot in their country is such a beautiful success both in technical and artistic terms.”) 20 The article introduces the character Michel Lacoste and his concerto by Mathieu, then proceeds to appraise “la beauté mélodique de l’oeuvre, la richesse de son inspiration […] qui font de cette oeuvre une des meilleures jamais écrites par un Canadien” 20 (“melodic beauty, the richness of inspiration, […] which make this work one of the greatest ever written by a Canadian.”) André Mathieu writes in his letter to his father that the film was also successful in Paris, and that even a radio program was especially devoted to him. 22

The high ratings of the film and of the music mostly in francophone regions can be explained by the film’s nationalistic approach regarding the land of Québec. This idea is first deeply embedded in the choice of the music of André Mathieu. Despite the tragic end of such a musical genius, Mathieu did spend his youth in the spotlight of media and music lovers. He was also strongly attached to his country and came back to Canada after numerous attempts to study abroad; 23 after all, he was Quebec’s star up until his teenage years. An article from The Montréal Star newspaper in 1954 writes that Mathieu was “part of the list of symbols to which Americans associated Canada”. 24 As mentioned above, Whispering City was crucial to the success of the Concerto de Québec, and in fact, as André Mathieu once told the writer Jean-Claude Germain, the music score may have occupied a larger space in the memory of the viewers than the film. 25 Mathieu was a modern-romantic composer, and romanticism in classical music is inextricably linked with nationalism. The Dutch cultural historian Joep Leerssen discusses in an article how composers and virtuoso performers in the past have emerged as “Romantic characters” for their particularly dramatic, tragic, sublime, and passionate lifestyle. 26

He draws attention to the ways in which the personality of celebrity-musicians and the public interest in these figures shape the history of nationalism. For instance, Leerssen situates the virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody as a significant cultural artifact that frames “lyrical-passionate music spiced up with local colour and virtuoso bravura” within the roots of nineteenth-century nationalism in Europe. 27 The genre of the Rhapsody, an instrumental composition typically built by spontaneity and with emotional character, in turn played an important role in shaping the nationalistic epics. 28 André Mathieu’s Rhapsodie Romantique for piano and orchestra, one of his masterpieces, exhibits the same stylistic elements of the genre, emanating a profound mystical imagination intertwined with the passionate themes of the romantic genre. In such a way, the choice of André Mathieu’s music as a leitmotif is strongly related to the shaping of the French-Canadian identity as presented by the film, and this in turn played, to a certain extent, the cornerstone in setting Mathieu as one of the rare Canadian composers to be credited with introducing a sense of nationalism to the country, and especially to the province of Quebec.

André Mathieu’s life and career journey is seemingly predicted in the film, and the anxiety of seeing the composer’s potential breakdown as a classical musician is strongly illustrated through some of the elements of the noir genre, and especially in the relationship between the married-couple Michel and Blanche Lacoste. William Parks gives out some key components of a film noir narrative, such as the corrupt city, the precariousness of the bourgeois, interlocking stories, and characters haunted by the past. 29 In terms of this definition, the plotlines of Whispering City are typical of a film noir, however with some significant differences which make the film diverge a little from the genre. There is neither sexual motivation nor evidence of cynical attitudes from the male protagonist. The film instead centers on the presence of a female protagonist railing for justice, and depicts a highly melodramatic focus on Marie and Michel’s romantic relationship, which are both also unusual in a typical noir. Moral ambiguity is also considered one of the characteristics of film noir since characters are often entangled in dangerous scenarios with tragic outcomes. Aeon Skoble notes that, despite the equivocal take on morality and ethics in many noirs, it is still possible to observe a strong inclination towards “moral clarity” in many films in terms of decision making and the themes of duty and virtue. 30 Such evidence is distinctive and noteworthy in Whispering City, as shown in Michel and Marie’s pragmatic approaches to the corruption pertaining to Albert’s murder and duplicity.

Yet, the dichotomy of justice and bigotry is all the more precisely articulated through the relationship between Michel and his wife Blanche, a relationship that metaphorically predicts André Mathieu’s musical career in the context of modernism. A femme fatale in film noir or any romantic literary work is generally the leading figure who ushers the male character to downfall and death. However, the beauteous Blanche, enrobed in a satin kimono gown during all her appearances on screen, completely fails at fulfilling the role of a classical femme fatale. From the beginning, the film establishes her as the embodiment of irrationality rather than of sexuality. Michel’s description of the relationship is an evident proof: “She hates my music, she hates me, and that makes her think that I hate her.” The film suggests that Blanche’s fear concerning her declining singing ability as a professional singer is the initial reason for her unjustified enmity and the relationship’s downfall. The anxiety and fear Blanche is experiencing is however more than simply about her singing talent. This is because Blanche, as a lover of modern jazz music, a transnational and modern genre, is the “femme moderne” 31 scuffling with Michel who is the epitome of a romantic character haunted by the malaise of modernity. Michel is portrayed as being a well-reasoned character who does not harm Blanche in any way, but only distances himself from her. He does not answer to her request to instead write popular music in order to “sell-out”. Moreover, Blanche is scared of being abandoned by her husband, and constantly baffles him by hinting that he wants to “get rid of” her or to “kill” her. Her neurosis and whims profoundly obstruct Michel’s work, and the man, out of anger, mercilessly breaks Blanche’s jazz disk. Guilty and remorseful, Blanche commits suicide, leaving a note stating: “Nobody will be between you and your music now.” Blanche’s preference for modern jazz music and her animosity toward Michel’s classical piece suggest that the two’s relationship symbolizes the historical rupture of the old and traditional with the new and modern world, especially in the context of the post-war period. André Mathieu’s failure to become an accomplished national composer during his life was exactly this; partly due to the rise of modernism and partly due to the general public’s distaste for romantic music. Therefore, it seems that the film’s narrative line on the married couple debates this very strong cultural shift, and in turn favors and idealizes the death of Blanche as the triumph of Romanticism. In this way, Blanche is an example of what Michelle Aaron considers as the ill-fated “Western Imagination of self-sacrificial femininity,” 32 rather than an exemplar of a femme fatale of the noir.

Finally, there is another attempt in the film to promote the city of Québec and its legacy through other conventions: the emphasis on the cityscape and its surrounding natural landscape. Several scholars have presented the city as a “maze” or a “labyrinth” in film noir. 33 In some instances, Whispering City seems to follow a similar pattern by portraying the mysteriousness of the city. For example, the long shot of Marie Roberts walking in a dark and obscure alley to enter the deceased actress’s home is configured in such a way that the buildings seemingly swallow any human presence, rendering it insignificant and powerless. Nevertheless, the film seems to only use such convention in order to draw attention to the image and ultimately promote Québec by also vaunting its beauty and the natural scenery. In a scene where Marie invites Michel into her studio, an interesting dialogue between the two characters is made about the location. They describe their love for Québec as they look out the window, and viewers are shown an image of a church building and a long shot of the urban setting.

Montmorency Falls is also an important location. It is the site of a murder committed by Albert, and it is also presented as another potential crime scene. The eerie and sinister quality of the cascade appears to be an inspiration from Canadian ghosts stories, namely that of the Lady in White who throws herself into the Montmorency Falls in her wedding dress. 34 Another nearby fall bears the name “Chute de la Dame Blanche (the White Lady Fall)” for this reason. 35 Such images do not exactly complement the idea of the urban site as a maze and place for entailing malicious forces. All of these images, whether of the city or nature, instead appear to be used as a way to advocate the national identity of Québec by attempting to solidify it as a both mysterious and beautiful place, potentially inciting the interest of foreign viewers, and nostalgia for the local viewers. Michel’s Concerto de Québec¬ the anxieties concerning the advent of modernism, and the attempt to merge music and landscape to construct a national character draws meaning from the configuration of such landscape and city images. Jean Sibelius is one of the clearest examples of a composer who successfully defined a musical style using a national-romantic idiom recalling the landscape of his own country. 36 For example, his tone poems, such as Finlandia Op. 26, are preoccupied with associating musical elements with the natural world of oceans and forests of Finland. [[Daniel M. Grimley, “The Tone Poems: Genre, Landscape and Structural Perspective,” in The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 105.] Thus, Whispering City‘s frequent recourse to the images of the nature and the city with the musical leitmotif can be understood as an attempt to define a national identity through the cultural and musical voice.

In conclusion, the Whispering City presents an idealized nationalist scenario entwined in the musical voice of André Mathieu’s Romantic Concerto no. 3. The film borrows certain elements of film noir to portray the anxiety of the changing cultural landscape of Québec in the post-war context and illustrates this perturbation through the metaphorical relationship of the composer Michel and his neurotic wife Blanche. The emphasis on landscape and the city environment, inspired by historical and folkloric culture, can also be understood as Ozep’s effort to merge the images of the city with the music, and ultimately present a defeated modernism under the victory of National and Romantic ideals.

Bibliography

Aaron, Michele. “Cinema and Suicide: Necromanticisnn, Dead-already-ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point” Cinema Journal 52, no.2 (2014): 71-92.

Christopher, Nicholas. Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City. Emeryville, CA : Shoemaker & Hoard : Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2006.

Germain, Jean-Claude. Le Coeur Rouge de la Bohème (Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise, 2008), 75- 81.

Grimley, Daniel M. “The Tone Poems: Genre, Landscape and Structural Perspective.” In _The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius_, edited by Daniel M. Grimley, 95–116. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Grossman, Julie. “‘Well, Aren’t We Ambitious’, or ‘You’ve Made up Your Mind I’m Guilty’: Reading Women as Wicked in American Film Noir” in _The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts_, edited by Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe, 199-211. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Huttunen, Matti. “The National Composer and the Idea of Finnishness: Sibelius and the Formation of Finnish Musical Style.” In The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, edited by Daniel M. Grimley, 5–21. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Leerssen, Joep. “Romanticism, Music, Nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism 20, no. 4 (2014): 606-627.

Mackenzie, Scott. “Soviet Expansionism: Fédor Ozep’s Transnational Cinema” _Canadian Journal of Film Studies_ 12, no. 1 (2003): 92-103.

Nicholson, Georges. Andre Mathieu : Biographie. Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2010.

Rudel-Tessier, Joseph. Andre Mathieu : un génie. Montréal: éditions Héritage, 1976.

Skoble, Aeon. “Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, edited by Mark T. Conard, 41-48. Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Notes

  1. Andre Robert, “Quebec Productions Corporation va faire de St-Hyacinthe le Hollywood du Canada,” La Canada, August 16, 1946.
  2. Scott Mackenzie, “Soviet Expansionism: Fédor Ozep’s Transnational Cinema” Canadian Journal of Film Studies 12, no. 1 (2003): 93.
  3. Georges Nicholson, André Mathieu : Biographie (Montréal: Québec Amérique, 2010), 66.
  4. Nicholson, André Mathieu, 65.
  5. Rose Leclerc, “Entrevue avec André Mathieu,” La Petite Revue, November, 1947.
  6. Nicholson, André Mathieu, 263.
  7. Ibid., 284.
  8. Ibid., 288, 341.
  9. Ibid., 287.
  10. Ibid., 331
  11. Ibid., 404, 405
  12. Ibid., 420
  13. Ibid., 452
  14. Ibid., 363
  15. Ibid., 361.
  16. Ibid., 461.
  17. Roger Duhamel, “Feuileton des Spectacles,” n.d. 189.
  18. Geo Royer, “La Forteresse,” Le Cinéma Canadien, 3 May, 1947.
  19. Geo Royer, “La Forteresse,” Le Cinéma Canadien, 3 May, 1947.
  20. Unknown author, “La Forteresse est un Succès,” Le Canada, 24 April, 1949.
  21. Unknown author, “La Forteresse est un Succès,” Le Canada, 24 April, 1949.
  22. Nicholson, André Mathieu, 264.
  23. Joseph Rudel-Tessier. André Mathieu : un génie (Montréal: éditions Héritage, 1976), 205.
  24. Eric McLean, The Montreal Star, December 11, 1954.
  25. Jean-Claude Germain, Le Coeur Rouge de la Bohème (Montréal: Éditions Hurtubise, 2008), 75-81.
  26. Joep Leerssen, “Romanticism, Music, Nationalism,” Nations and Nationalism 20, no. 4 (2014): 609.
  27. Leerssen, “Romanticism, Music, Nationalism,” 608.
  28. Ibid.
  29. William Parks, What Is Film Noir? (Plymouth: Bucknell University Press, 2011), 19-30.
  30. Aeon Skoble, “Moral Clarity and Practical Reason in Film Noir” in The Philosophy of Film Noir, ed. Mark T. Conard (Lexington : University Press of Kentucky, 2006), 41, 47.
  31. Julie Grossman, “ ‘Well, Aren’t We Ambitious’, or ‘You’ve Made up Your Mind I’m Guilty’: Reading Women as Wicked in American Film Noir” in The Femme Fatale: Images, Histories, Contexts, ed. Helen Hanson and Catherine O’Rawe (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010), 199-211.
  32. Michele Aaron, “Cinema and Suicide: Necromanticisnn, Dead-already-ness, and the Logic of the Vanishing Point” Cinema Journal 52, no.2 (2014): 76.
  33. Nicholas Christopher, Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir and the American City (Emeryville, CA : Shoemaker & Hoard : Distributed by Publishers Group West, 2006), 17, & J. P. Telotte, Voices in the Dark : The Narrative Patterns of Film Noir (Urbana : University of Illinois Press, 1989), 148.
  34. Paranormal Studies & Inguiry Canada, “The Lady In White of Montmorency Falls” Accessed February 22, 2019. http://psican.org/index.php/ghosts-a-hauntings/quebec/377-the-lady-in-white-of-montmorency-falls
  35. Ville De Québec, “Montmorency: Chute De La Dame Blanche.” Accessed February 22, 2019. https://www.ville.quebec.qc.ca/citoyens/patrimoine/quartiers/montmorency/interet/chute-de-la-dame-blanche.aspx.
  36. Huttunen, Matti. “The National Composer and the Idea of Finnishness: Sibelius and the Formation of Finnish Musical Style.” In The Cambridge Companion to Sibelius, ed. Daniel M. Grimley (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 8, 12.

Volume 23, Issue 7 / July 2019 Essays canadian cinemafilm noirquebec cin