Born 1950, Geneva, Switzerland.
From scrawling on blackboards in her native Switzerland to calling the shots on feature films in Canada, Léa Pool has travelled a great distance both physically and emotionally since abandoning her teaching career to study communications at L’Universite du Quebec a Montreal. When Pool left Geneva in 1975, she did so with the simple aim of learning to shoot video so she could teach her students what to do. She never dreamed of making movies, let alone becoming one of Canada’s premier directors, but once she discovered the medium’s ability to act as a type of psychic paint stripper, Pool was hooked.
Beginning with a small, co-directed documentary short about a bellhop in a hotel, Laurent Lamerre, portier, Pool made an impression off the bat and was given a chance to teach after she completed the program. Un Strass Cafe (1980) was her first solo project — an experimental short made with the support of the National Film Board — and established Pool’s artistic perspective early on. Shot in black and white, the film deals with urban alienation as it shows images of the cool Montreal cityscape set to a soundtrack of fragmented spoken word. Through these impressionist visuals, Pool tells the story of two people looking for love — but never meet. Pool remembers that first film as a very “intense personal experience” because she was working alone until the moment she screened it before an audience. “It was all me… It was a good exercise because I think I needed to be alone to find my style and to understand what I was doing without any guidance,” she says. “I learned film can just pull you in a certain direction, and when it does, you should probably follow it even if you aren’t too sure where, exactly, you are going.”
Pool’s first feature, La Femme de l’hotel (A Woman in Transit), explored similar themes. In that film, which won the International Critics’ Prize at the Montreal World Film Festival and best Canadian film at the 1984 Toronto Festival of Festivals — in addition to a host of other honours around the world — we not only see the return of the hotel motif (a visual penchant she shares with Atom Egoyan), but another story that deals with fragmentation and personal identity. The film revolves around three female characters and true to reflexive Canadian form, the pivotal figure is a film-maker, Andrea (Paule Baillargeon), who returns home to discover she is a stranger in her old hometown. The other two women are symbolic foils to Andrea the creator. One is a suicidal older woman mourning the end of a love affair, the other is an actress in Andrea’s musical. Pool says the intention was to fragment the self into three parts: the conscious, the unconscious and the one forced to negotiate both at every second, the film-maker herself. It was a complicated, surreal weave, but it worked and Pool was suddenly hailed as a bright light in the Canadian marquee (even though half her films have never been released theatrically in English-speaking Canada because distributors don’t think Anglo-Canadians, like Americans, appreciate sub-titled movies).
With good reviews and a budding reputation, Pool began work on her next film, Anne Trister, a story that closely mirrors Pool’s own life. The story of Anne (Albane Guilhe), a woman who leaves her native Switzerland to start a new life, Pool began to unpack some of her own neatly packed parental baggage through the artistic process. Pool is the product of a mixed marriage: her father was a Jew who lived as an exile in his wife’s country, leaving Pool and her brother with a cloven identity. When Pool moved to Montreal, she — like Anne — fell in love with a woman, and began to create a new self in the proverbial New World. Anne Trister didn’t excavate all of Pool’s excess luggage, but it was the beginning of her creative journey inward.
Her next film, Straight for the Heart (A corps perdu), followed the same thread but it was more of an abstract statement on her own life as it told the story of a photojournalist who returns from an assignment in war-torn Nicaragua to discover both his male, and female lover have left him — for each other. Broken and betrayed, Pierre turns his lens on the city of Montreal and finds nothing but more fragmentation. Dislocation and alienation are favored motifs in Pool’s oeuvre, but she never forgets the power of love — which has the capacity to fill the gap and bring people together. “If there is anything that I hope for [when people see my films], it’s for people to relate to the characters so they know they are not alone. Everybody has feelings of alienation, but they have to know they are not the only ones,” she says. In her 1994 film, Desire and Motion (Mouvements du désir), Pool sets her contrapuntal themes of love and alienation against the vast Canadian landscape, as a train carrying two broken souls chugs its way from Montreal to Vancouver. A perfect Canadian metaphor, the railroad that brought the country together becomes the vehicle through which two lost souls find mutual understanding.
Pool’s most personal film to date is her most recent, 1998 effort, Emporte-moi (Set Me Free). A coming-of-age story about the child of a Jewish-Catholic marriage, the film stars Karine Vanasse as Hanna, a kid who can’t reconcile two different world views. Her Jewish father is a slightly unhinged intellectual who feels the world is out to destroy him and her mother is a martyr who spends her days in a sweatshop to pay the bills, then comes home at night to type up her husband’s prose. Hanna’s only escape from this hellish existence comes in the form of Godard’s Vivre sa vie, which Hanna watches over and over again in the quiet silence of the movie theatre.
“With Emporte-moi, I wanted to make a film that showed how difficult it is to be that age. Everything is very confusing, but you are trying to understand who you are so you look inside yourself for answers. The challenge in making the movie was to make this internal struggle apparent on the screen, so I show Hanna watching this strong woman [Godard’s Anna Karina] in the theatre as a way of showing you who she would like to become. But outside the theatre, things are much more difficult,” she says.
“It’s definitely my most personal film. It’s about my mother and my father and my life. My mother saw the scripts. I wanted to show them to her because it was important to me that she understood what I was trying to say, and it brought us closer together. In so many ways, the movie was a relief. It pushed me to think of things I did not really want to look at before. But making the movie, I was able to see my life from a distance. This was not just my story, it was now the story of Hanna and I could watch her and care for her as a character — not a memory,” she says.
The coming-of-age story was only half the identity baggage that Pool was given a chance to unpack in Emporte-moi. Pool says she didn’t even think about the religious baggage until she was in her 30s, when she began to feel the urge to explore her father’s roots. She went to Israel and got in touch with what she describes as he “exile” side.
“We think we live in a non-religious time, which may be true. But it’s not possible to escape your religious roots. The exile identity question is one I always have with me. The Jewish part of me is the exile, my father was not allowed freedom of movement. That leaves a very strong imprint on your memory. There is also the suffering. As a Jew, my father suffered for the lost generation. He was a Jew who did not die. I never thought these things affected me, but it was so deep in me… it was subterranean. It’s still difficult to talk about,” she says.
What Pool does talk about, with glee, is her affection for film and the way it can bring poetry and sensuality into the darkest places. “But there is light, too,” she says. “I don’t just want the dark, in photography you need the light. Film is also light… In terms of style, I just try and give a very strong point of view. Only then can you find this larger emotional scale. But for a strong point of view, it’s so important to open oneself so you can get the universal. That’s why I like very simple shots…. I have nothing left to prove, I’m a good film-maker. I can relax a little. I don’t need the fancy camera moves to find new ways of filming. I can relax a little now, and enjoy the pleasure of living.”
Pool is slated to release her first English-language effort, Lost and Delirious, in 2001. Based on a Susan Swan novel about love, lust and coming-of-age in a girls’ boarding school, the film stars American actor Piper Perabo, Jackie Burroughs, Graham Greene and Jessica Paré.
— Katherine Monk
FILMOGRAPHY: Laurent Lamerre, portier (1978), Strass Café (1980), La Femme de l’hôtel (Woman in Transit, 1984), Anne Trister (1986), À corps perdu (Straight for the Heart, 1988), Hotel Chronicles (1990), Montréal vu par… (1991), La Demoiselle sauvage (1991), Mouvements du désir (Desire in Motion,1994), Emporte-moi (Set Me Free, 1999), Lost and Delirious (2001), The Blue Butterfly, Mama est chez le coiffeur (2008), La derniere fugue (2010), Pink Ribbons, Inc. (2011), La Passion D’Augustine (2015).