Les Filles de Caleb

Also known as Emilie
French, dubbed in English (1990)

Ovila: "Goodbye, my beautiful mist."

[Note: This review includes spoilers, although I tried to keep them to a minimum.]

Les Filles de Caleb is a love story set in rural Quebec in the early 1900s. A twenty-hour miniseries that originally aired in 1990, it starred Marina Orsini as Emilie Bordeleau and Roy Dupuis as Ovila Pronovost. They both did a wonderful job of portraying the highs and lows of these characters over a period of twenty years.

Emilie is a dedicated, talented schoolteacher, passionate about her vocation, who teaches in a one-room schoolhouse. Courted by a local boy, eighteen-year-old Emilie is instead strongly attracted to his younger brother Ovila, who is two years younger than herself as well as one of her students. Marina Orsini gave a powerful and compelling performance. She may be my favorite of Roy's leading ladies.

Ovila Pronovost is different from every character Roy has ever played; I felt sorry for him and wanted to slap him at the same time. (The closest thing to Ovila was probably Alexis in Seraphin -- in fact, I bet they wanted him for Alexis because of Ovila.) A quiet, introverted loner, Ovila always intended to do the right thing but found it difficult to deal with the harder aspects of life: grief, loss, fatherhood, responsibility. At one point, his mother observed that Ovila was just like his grandfather, who was always off to the woods and showed up once in awhile to get his wife pregnant, only to leave again.

The best part of the earlier episodes (for me, anyway) was the romance. There is an early scene where Ovila and Emilie are watching two horses mate. They are both strongly aroused and hyper aware of each other, but can't touch because they are not alone. He stares at her and gently touches her neck, and she reacts subtly to his touch. Very, very sexy, with no sex at all. (Well, except for the horses.) There is also an erotic scene where Emilie is sleeping and touching herself as she fantasizes about Ovila swimming naked in a waterfall. (Yes, Roy did two nude scenes, including, briefly, the full Monty.) The wedding night scenes were just lovely, passionate and realistic. And I loved the way he always turned the brim of his hat around when he kissed her.

On their wedding day, Emilie discovers that Ovila's first name isn't Ovila -- it is Charles. In truth, this is symbolic of the fact that even though they spent five years longing for each other before they were wed, Emilie doesn't really know Ovila when she marries him. On their wedding night, they go swimming in the lake, in the dark; they are setting off into a dark unknown, an uncertain future, and can't see what is ahead of them. As they weather terrible hardships and have one child after another, Emilie loses the enthusiasm and optimism of youth while Ovila struggles unsuccessfully to be the man she expects and needs him to be.

One thing I liked a lot about this miniseries is its feminist theme. The story opens with an incident from Emilie's childhood, featuring her focused rebellion against her father's unfair division of work between boys and girls. (This same segment included the brutal death of Caleb's favorite horse, illustrating that the hardship wasn't just for women; in truth, Ovila's options were never much better than Emilie's.) After she marries, Emilie is trapped by biology, at the mercy of the man she chose when she was young and carefree. I thought they gave us an interesting contrast in Emilie's best friend Berthe, who shuns men and marriage and becomes a cloistered nun. As Emilie's life becomes more and more difficult, Berthe's choice, as restricted as it is, often appears to be the better one.

Many of the characters are memorable. Emilie's father Caleb, in particular, is just adorable. And there are many wonderful scenes, like the Christmas pageant that Emilie painstakingly organizes and presents in order to make the parents like her; the visits of the unconventional school inspector; the comic aspects of the entire school board brawling in the schoolyard. I was particularly moved by the entire Pronovost family kneeling in front of kitchen chairs, praying while a loved one was dying. There is a gruesome forceps birth, the urinary difficulties of a child dying from kidney disease, a shocking scene where Emilie gives birth alone in a blinding snowstorm.

Life was so hard and cold; there was disease and death, poverty and want. Yet, the characters often expressed so much joy in living. There was the pleasure they took in their children, the earthiness and joy of sex, the beauty of the landscape, the closeness to the earth.

Les Filles de Caleb is joyous, moving, tragic, absorbing, and beautifully done. It is an exceptional miniseries.

Four out of four stars,

Billie

P.S. The English version of this title is hard to find. There was a DVD release a few years ago (see ad near the top of the page), but it is in French and there are no English subtitles. I consider myself lucky that I saw it at all.
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Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.

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