Credit: Alliance Vivafilm
With Bon Cop, Bad Cop, Kevin Tierney produced one of the rare Canadian movies to be a smash hit in both linguistic communities. And a new, typically Canadian genre was born: the bilingual comedy with broad appeal. The latest offering of this English-speaking producer from Quebec, slated for release in the summer of 2011, will once again play up the cultural differences and distinctive characteristics of English- and French-speaking Canadians.
The genesis of French Immersion actually goes back about 20 years—the brainchild of co-screenwriter Jefferson Lewis, whose sister had just gone through such a program. The late Francis Mankiewicz was tapped to direct the film, but his illness led to the project being cancelled.
Strange then that no one else thought to mine this potentially rich vein of fiction when you consider the popularity of language immersion in Canada, especially among politicians. "It's become a real industry in Quebec," says Kevin Tierney. "Some towns and cities really depend on it. Jonquière is one example, and so is Trois-Pistoles, which has had a French-language school since 1903. The federal government keeps this system going, but it's still surprising to me that the phenomenon isn't more widespread in Quebec. I don't think there's an Anglophone anywhere in Canada who hasn't at least heard of French immersion. A lot of schools across the country offer French immersion classes."Footnote 1
Set in a fictional village, the movie follows five Anglophones who are plunged into a totally Francophone environment and so strictly supervised they aren't even allowed to speak English during their stay. "I wanted to have fun with the whole process of infantilization," says Tierney, the film's director and co-screenwriter. "Here we have adults going back to school and boarding with local families. And everyone talks to them really slowly, as if they were idiots."
With its mixed cast (including Colm Feore, Robert Charlebois, Pascale Bussières, and Karine Vanasse), French Immersion also parodies the two linguistic groups." The basic idea behind Bon Cop, Bad Cop was to poke fun at our cultural differences, but we never brought up politics," explains Tierney. "It's the same thing in this movie. Politics is boring," he says jokingly, "but culture is richly textured."
Credit: Alliance Vivafilm
"What's really amusing is that each part of the country clearly recognized its counterpart in Bon Cop… Here in Quebec, the Francophones would tell me that while the French-speaking characters were a bit clichéd, we had really got the Anglo characters down. In the rest of Canada, people said we had overused Anglo stereotypes (sure, everyone in English Canada wears a turtleneck and is constipated), but congratulated us on getting those French-speaking characters down. I think that's where the movie was successful. Let's hope that audiences will have the same opinion of French Immersion. Of course, all of the characters are stereotypes, but we can identify with them. The clichés are familiar and we can recognize ourselves in them."
The African connection
It comes as no surprise that Kevin Tierney is so interested in themes involving the country's two solitudes. "It's really a reflection of my own life,” he says. “Every day, I work in French for the most part, so that's an unbelievable source of material. And as an English-speaking Irish Montrealer, I think I have a perspective that isn't tied to any particular community."
Born and bred in Montréal, Tierney nevertheless learned French … in Africa. In 1974, he was an English instructor for Canadian University Service Overseas when his program was cancelled. He was then offered a chance to go to Algeria and look after French-language courses in that country. The unilingual Montrealer thus found himself in a French Immersion situation, which enabled him to learn the language. "Afterwards, I went to Chad and since they had a surplus of English teachers, the director of the school asked me to teach French," he recalls laughing. "Can you believe it? So finally I agreed to teach history and geography in French. My poor Chadian students!"
Credit: Alliance Vivafilm
Upon returning to Montréal in 1976 at the age of 26, Kevin Tierney began his "bilingual life," conscious of the irony that saw him go so far to learn French when he had grown up in Park Extension. "I realized what a ridiculous situation it was," he admits. "At 23, I had been living in the second-largest French city in the world and couldn't speak the language. I guess it seemed so much more exotic to pick up French in Algeria than in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve."
Bilingualism changed everything for this Montrealer who was raised in a household that didn't speak a word of the language of Michel Tremblay. "If I hadn't learned French," he says, "I don't think I ever would have stayed in Quebec." But he made sure his own children were bilingual.
Kevin Tierney sees the linguistic duality as a gift—a key that opens doors. "There's a lot to be gained by getting to know another culture, but you can't forget your own. I have always identified with my Irish roots. My mother was born there and I have an Irish passport. So I tried to pass this heritage onto my children as well."
Kevin Tierney insists that it's not his ambition to use his movies to build bridges between the two communities. "I'm a storyteller," he says, "I like to entertain. I really get a kick out of going into a theatre and listening to people laugh at something in one of my films or hear them say they really enjoyed it. That's fairly rare for a Canadian producer."
But there's no doubt that relationships between Anglophones and Francophones represent something of a mother lode when it comes to comedic inspiration. "We live more comfortably than 98% of the world's population," says Tierney, "and yet we always want to argue because of politics. I find that a bit ridiculous. When facing these types of situations, we can be very pessimistic or be somewhat cynical. At least with irony, we can have a bit of fun."