Synopsis: This moody Canadian thriller follows the beautiful Isabel (Geneviève Bujold) as she leaves Montreal and returns to the coastal Quebec farm where she grew up. Discovering that her mother has died, Isabel stays on the farm to assist her uncle (Gerard Parkes) with the daily chores. Her presence there stirs up disturbing memories of violence and death in the family, and soon Isabel is tormented by dark visions that leave her increasingly unsettled and fearful.
eyelights: Geneviève Bujold. its eeriness.
eyesores: its erratic editing. its inscrutability.
“This space is for you… then we’ll all be there together one day.”
Honestly, I don’t know what to make of ‘Isabel’, the 1968 Canadian motion picture by Paul Almond. The recipient of four Canadian Film Awards, the film made history by being the first (or one of the first, depending on your source) Canadian feature to get backing by a major studio, in this case Paramount.
Interestingly, despite its reputation and its pedigree (its director started the ground-breaking ‘Seven Up!‘ series, and its lead actress is none other than Geneviève Bujold), the picture has been relegated to relative obscurity: it played on television during the ’70s, but has never been released on home video.
Thankfully, a group of Canadian film enthusiasts decided to bring the picture out of obscurity for one evening, showing a rare archival print at an Ottawa cinema. I was unaware of this, but a friend of mine found out and, when I read that it was considered Hitchcockian and that it starred Bujold, I was on board.
‘Isabel’ is set in rural Québec, and it follows the film’s namesake as she takes two weeks off from her big city life to return home and be by her ailing mother’s side. Upon her arrival, she finds her mother already deceased, her uncle incapable of taking care of himself, and is herself haunted by ghosts of the past.
But are these real ghosts? Or just figments of her imagination?
That’s in the eye of the beholder, it seems.
Some online references like to refer to ‘Isabel’ as a horror movie. I’m not quite sure I agree. It is certainly an atmospheric, mildly disturbing piece, yes, but it’s hardly in the same category as ‘Rosemary’s Baby‘ or ‘The Omen‘. Of course, as I said, I’m not quite sure what to make of this one; it left me quizzical.
For starters, it introduced us to Isabel by showing her on a train home, intercut wildly with more jarring imagery suggesting things to come. Spooky. But then it spent the next 100 minutes meandering onward on its journey, only to come to a close abruptly, with no real explanation of what it intended to do.
That whole time, Isabel is confronted by a few mysterious apparitions, but it never leads to anything. There is absolutely no build-up of tension: For every potentially eerie moment, there are dozens of utterly mundane ones in which Isabel is interacting with the local rubes, essentially breaking up the vibe.
(Be forewarned: this eventually takes us to a lame square dance. Le sigh…).
So, while it certainly captures the dreariness of rural life really well, it’s not exactly a riveting cinematic offering. Add to this some choppy editing, an unexpectedly experimental sound effects track, poor audio (was it just a print issue?), and a murky ending in which we saw very little, and it’s a mind-boggler.
Ultimately, the main reason to watch ‘Isabel’ is for Geneviève Bujold – both for her performance and her presence. She is absolutely captivating here. While I admit that I’ve always had a weakness for her (she imbues her characters with such inner strength!), this is possibly my favourite of all her performances.
Bujold’s Isabel is a tour de force in subtlety.
Some online critiques suggested that ‘Isabel’ finds our protagonist slowly unraveling, as though she were going mad. I don’t believe that this is the case: to me, she is merely confronting past demons, traumatic events that she had left behind, perhaps even buried completely out of sight.
That is, until now.
But she certainly is not going mad.
‘Isabel’ is slow, messy and oft-inscrutable, but there is still something compelling about it. At the very least, there are bits and bytes that pique one’s curiosity and make us want to understand it better. It’s hardly masterful filmmaking but, thanks to Geneviève Bujold, it doesn’t completely crumble apart.
It’s a shame that it’s fallen into such obscurity that we may never shed any real light on it.
Date of viewing: January 20, 2016