- War and Peace / Guerre et paix
Installation, vinyl text on walls, audiotape 60 mn and 2 headphones, 2 armchairs, 2014.
- Exhibitions views, VOX centre de l'image contemporaine, Montreal, 2014.
- Photos: Michel Brunelle.
- The story of Jacques Mesrine’s time in Quebec, from 1968 to
1972, circulates within popular memory in jumpy and episodic form.
Mesrine’s stay here was punctuated by bank robberies, a kidnapping,
prison breaks and rescues, flight to the U.S., and a trial for murder
in Gaspésie. With time, the sequence of these events has become hazy,
and the threads connecting them are easily lost amidst the busy drama
of a period sometimes considered Quebec’s Golden Age of outlaw crime.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, robber/adventurers like Mesrine,
working with only a handful of accomplices, had largely displaced the
business-like syndicates who typified Quebec criminality in the 1940s
and 1950s. Mesrine arrived in Quebec the year after Monica la Mitraille
(“Machine-Gun Molly”) was shot to death following a string of
spectacular bank robberies in the Montreal area. Monica la Mitraille
and Jacques Mesrine—like Bonnie and Clyde, subjects of one of the top
film successes of 1968—would become folk heroes in an era in which
robbery and flight from the law had come to stand for youthful
During Mesrine’s years in Quebec, local crime tabloids like Allo Police
and Photo Police were filled with grim photographs of criminal hideouts
in Montreal’s suburbs and mug-shot portraits of criminals, mostly white
and male, who were slowly adopting the long hair and sideburns of the
countercultural figures who came to dominate popular culture. This was
also a period in which crime and politics became interwoven ever more
tightly, in Quebec as elsewhere in the world. Robbery had come a
popular means for underground political movements, like the Front de
liberation du Québec, to raise funds to support their causes. In jails
like the Unité speciale de correction in Laval, from which Mesrine
escaped in 1972, the demands of the incarcerated for better conditions
and treatment joined up with broader movements for prison reform. It
was difficult, as the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, to draw a sharp line
between crime and revolution.
Michael Blum’s film Cavale au Canada, which is at the centre of the
installation War and Peace, revisits many of the key sites and spaces
of Jacques Mesrine’s time in Quebec. Some of these spaces, like the
apartment on Sherbrooke St. East or the suburban mansion in Mont
Saint-Hilaire—both of which Mesrine occupied in 1969—are described in
later accounts of his life as spaces of modern luxury. They appear to
us now, however, as unattractive, tacky structures. We are unsure,
though, whether this difference in opinion expresses our own snobbery
towards Mesrine’s lower-middle-class aspirations or a broader,
collective shift in taste since the 1960s. In any event, these modern
constructions, like the bars and motels built to cater to tourists in
Percé, where Mesrine later sought refuge, are full of hopes and
ambitions whose sad disappointment the film successfully conveys.
Like other recent film works by Michael Blum, Cavale au Canada follows
a biographical narrative which resists the full intelligibility of
lives and events. Our narrator presents herself as Mesrine’s
unacknowledged daughter, seeking after the truth of her father’s life.
As the film travels to Percé, in the Gaspésie region of Quebec, we are
drawn into encounters with townspeople who fascinate us in ways which
have little to do with their links to events a quarter century old. The
interviews, which make up almost two thirds of the film, expose us to
local accents and ways of speaking, and in their extended length these
conversations offer their own pleasures and interest. We relish the
ways in which the older residents of Percé tell their stories, in words
which somehow seem both freshly improvised and highly polished through
repetition. As viewers, we elaborate our own theories about culpability
in the murder of the motel keeper Évelyne Le Bouthillier—a murder of
which Mesrine was accused and was eventually acquitted. Not wanting to
be complicit in a deception, we are relieved when our narrator sets
aside her fictional role as Mesrine’s daughter and is thus not obliged
to lie to people we have come to like.
While the story of Mesrine’s life has been recounted many times, in
books and films, Michael Blum’s War and Peace is the first work to tell
this story from a Quebec perspective. As the installation shows us,
Mesrine’s séjour in Quebec left its mark on places and personal
memories, while his own insolent rebelliousness fit neatly within
ascendant political and cultural sensibilities here.
- Will Straw