Léa Pool, CM, filmmaker, director, documentarian, screenwriter, producer (born 8 September 1950 in Soglio, Switzerland). Through her introspective films, Pool offers an approach to female characters that is stripped of all stereotypes. Exploring themes of love, exile and uprootedness, she attempts to draw viewers into a reflection on their own condition, through their own individuality. Often compared with the films of Marguerite Duras, Pool’s films focus on intimate emotions and attract a multigenerational audience. The recipient of many awards in Canada and abroad, Léa Pool is the first female director to win Best Film at the Gala du cinéma québécois.
Youth and Early Career
Born to a Swiss Catholic mother and a stateless Polish Jewish father who fled Poland and settled in Switzerland during the Second World War, Léa Pool uses her mother’s surname. In 1975, at age 25, she emigrated to Canada and began studying communications at the Université du Québec à Montréal. She experimented with various media, including short films, documentaries and television series.
Pool made her first short film, Laurent Lamerre, portier, in 1978, and her first feature-length film, a cinematographic poem entitled Strass Café, in 1980. With black-and-white images evoking the lethargy of the city in which it is set, Strass Café relates the abstract adventures of unknown, solitary individuals who never meet.
From 1980 to 1981, Pool worked on Planète et Eva en transit, a television series aired by Radio-Québec (now Télé-Québec), developed by members of cultural minorities and designed to give them a voice.
La femme de l’hôtel (1984) and Anne Trister (1986)
In 1984, Pool made the film La femme de l’hôtel (A Woman in Transit), which received awards at numerous international film festivals (Montréal, Toronto, Créteil, Chicago, Denver). In 1986, she directed Anne Trister, a semi-autobiographical film that tells the story of Anne, a young painter, played by Albane Guilhe, who has just immigrated to Montréal. Throughout this film, in which the quest for female identity is ever-present, items that belonged to five or six people who marked the filmmaker’s existence intertwine with fragments from her own life.
Ten-year-old actor Lucie Laurier won attention for her brilliant performance in this film and was nominated for the 1987 Genie Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Louise Marleau gave an equally memorable performance as Alix, Anne’s friend and lover. The film popularized the song De la main gauche, written by Jean Fredenucci and sung by Danielle Messia. Using metaphors to evoke reticence about speaking one’s feelings and revealing one’s love, the song was subsequently covered by many other artists, including Québec singer Luce Dufault.
À corps perdu (1988)
Pool’s next film, À corps perdu (Straight for the Heart), adapted from the novel Kurwenal by French author Yves Navarre, raised her to the top ranks of film directors. It was screened in official competition at the Venice and Chicago international film festivals in 1988.
Next, in 1990, Pool made Hotel Chronicles, a feature-length documentary film, for the National Film Board series Parler d’Amérique. Hotel Chronicles examines the great American myths, the connections between art and reality, and the place of modern women in society.
In 1991, Pool made La demoiselle sauvage (The Savage Woman), a film shot entirely in the Canton of Valais, Switzerland. In this film, Pool paints a portrait of Marianne, a young girl whose past is just as undefined as what might come up next in her life, which seems stuck in time. Pool once said of her body of work, “All my main characters are locked in a struggle. We never know whether they will fall or continue to advance.” La demoiselle sauvage is a perfect example.
In 1992, Pool participated in the collective project Montréal vu par…/Montreal Stories,to which several other filmmakers also contributed, including Denys Arcand, Michel Brault and Atom Egoyan.Her contribution, Rispondetemi, was a short film depicting a young lesbian’s headlong dash between life and death, sharply punctuated with flashbacks throughout her perilous journey in an ambulance.
Mouvements du désir (1994)
Pool enjoyed continued success with Mouvements du désir (Movements of Desire), a love story that takes place mostly on a train from Montréal to Vancouver. Pool says that this film was inspired by Fragments d’un discours amoureux, a book by Roland Barthes. The film received eight Genie nominations and was showered with critical accolades. Huguette Roberge, of the Montréal daily La Presse, wrote, “Léa Pool’s eighth film is certainly her most universal and can be regarded as the first erotic film in the history of Québec cinema.”
Emporte-moi (1997) and Lost and Delirious (1999)
In 1997, Pool made a documentary about the life of Québec author Gabrielle Roy, followed in 1999 by Emporte-moi (Set Me Free), which Pool wrote together with Canadian novelist Nancy Huston. Starring the young Karine Vanasse, this film won the Special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as several other awards, including the Jutra Award for the Québec film that achieved the greatest international success in 2000.
In 2001, Léa Pool shot her first feature film in English, Lost and Delirious, starring Canadian actor Jessica Paré and American actors Piper Perabo and Mischa Barton.The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and earned Pool a Jutra Award for the most internationally successful Québec film for the second year in a row. Both of these films deal with the quest for female and sexual identity during the transitional years of adolescence.
Le papillon bleu (2004) and Maman est chez le coiffeur (2008)
In 2004, Pool made Le papillon bleu (The Blue Butterfly), a film that targeted a wider audience, including family audiences. American actor William Hurt played Georges Brossard, the famous Québec entomologist who founded the Montréal Insectarium.
Léa Pool loves to put children in her films. In Maman est chez le coiffeur, released in 2004, she employs no fewer than 13 young actors, ages 7 to 14. She gives them freedom and trust, which she describes as two basic ingredients of her film recipe. If a line turns out to be too complicated for a child to deliver, she doesn’t hesitate to reword it in more familiar, suitable language. The theme of abandonment is very present in this film, which looks at the issue of divorce in Québec in the 1960s.
Pool’s following film was La dernière fugue (The Last Escape) (2010), based on the novel Une belle mort by Gil Courtemanche, which deals with the right to die in dignity. Though selected as the festival opener for the 2010 Rendez-vous du cinéma québécois, the film did not enjoy the same success on the festival circuit as Pool’s preceding films.
La passion d’Augustine (2015)
In 2015, Pool offered audiences La passion d’Augustine, a film scripted by Marie Vien and set during Québec’s Quiet Revolution. At this time when Québec’s church-run schools are being secularized, a community of nuns in rural Québec is running a girls’ boarding school where music is the central focus. But this community, too, must deal with the social upheavals of the time, embodied in a teenage piano virtuoso who comes to study at the school. In an interview, Pool told how much making this film taught her about the Québec culture and issues of this bygone time:
I discovered what the nuns contributed to Québec society. We should remember that it was they who founded the first schools and hospitals in Québec. They accomplished some remarkable things. They symbolize Québec’s national heritage, and we should not simply brush them aside.
Léa Pool has generally given music an important place in her films, and that is especially so in La passion d’Augustine. The school, run by Mother Augustine (Céline Bonnier), is a musical jewel, and she is doing everything she can to save it by seeing that her girls win every music competition in the province. Lysandre Ménard, the actor who plays the young piano virtuoso, was a student at Montréal’s music conservatory. Pool preferred to teach her something about acting rather than compromise the piano playing shown in the film. The music for this ambitious production was arranged by François Dompierre.
La passion d’Augustine received several awards on the international film festival circuit, as well as 10 nominations at the 2016 Gala du cinéma québécois, including Best Film and Best Director. Pool’s film won big at the gala, taking home six awards, including Best Film — the first time this award has gone to a female filmmaker since the gala began in 1999.
A Committed Documentarian
In 2011, at the invitation of NFB producer Ravida Din, Pool made Pink Ribbons, Inc., a feature-length documentary that takes a critical look at the pink-ribbon campaign to support breast cancer patients. In this film she clearly shows that, though this campaign may be inspired by a noble cause and a sense of solidarity among women, large corporations are using the little pink ribbon to polish their own public image. In an interview with journalist Nathalie Petrowski, Pool said that she hoped this film would raise some questions and stimulate debate.
Honours and Awards
Best Canadian Feature Film (La femme de l’hôtel), Toronto International Film Festival (1984)
Audience Award (Anne Trister), International Women’s Film Festival, Créteil, France (1986)
Award of the Association québécoise des critiques de cinéma (À corps perdu) (1988)
Award of the Société générale des industries culturelles (À corps perdu) (1988)
Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres de France (1994)
Special Prize of the Ecumenical Jury (Emporte-moi), Berlin International Film Festival (1998)
Rockie Award for Best History and Biography Program (Gabrielle Roy), Banff World Television Festival (1998)
Award for Best Documentary (Gabrielle Roy), Prix Gémeaux (1998)
Most Internationally Successful Québec Film (Emporte-moi), Jutra Awards (1999)
Audience Award (Lost and Delirious), Stockholm Film Festival (2001)
Most Internationally Successful Québec Film (Lost and Delirious), Jutra Awards (2002)
Albert Tessier Prize, Prix du Québec (2006)
Recognition Award, Faculty of Communication, Université du Québec à Montréal (2006)
Women of Distinction Award, Women’s Y Foundation (2006)
Most Internationally Successful Québec Film (Maman est chez le coiffeur), Jutra Awards (2009)
Member of the Order of Canada (2013)
Audience Award (La passion d’Augustine), Festival du film francophone, Angoulême, France (2015)
Best Screenplay and Audience Award (La passion d’Augustine), Festival du cinéma et musique de film, La Baule, France (2015)
Best Feature Award (La passion d’Augustine), Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival, Rehoboth Beach, Delaware (2015)
Best Film, Best Director and Best Screenplay (La passion d’Augustine), Newport Beach Film Festival, Newport Beach, California (2015)
Honourary Director, Female Eye Film Festival, Toronto, Ontario (2015)
Audience Award (La passion d’Augustine), Rencontres cinématographiques de Cannes, Cannes, France (2015)
Best Director (La passion d’Augustine), Gala du cinéma québécois (2016)
Best Film (La passion d’Augustine), Gala du cinéma québécois (2016)
Florian Grandena, "Léa Pool: The Art of Elusiveness," in Brenda Austin-Smith and George Melnyk, ed.,The Gendered Screen: Canadian Women Filmakers (2010): 141-61.
Mary Jean Green, "Léa Pool’s La femme de l’hôtel and Women’s Film in Québec," Québec Studies, no 9 (Fall 1989‒Winter 1990) : 49-62.
Brenda Longfellow, "The Search for Voice: La femme de l’hôtel," in Michael Dorland, Seth Feldman and Pierre Véronneau, eds., Dialogue : cinéma canadien et québécois (1987) : 269-281.
Bill Marshall, Quebec National Cinema (2001).
George Melnyk, One Hundred Years of Canadian Cinema (2004).
Janis L. Pallister, The Cinema of Québec: Masters in Their Own House (1995) and French-speaking Women Film Directors: A Guide (1997).
Nathalie Petrowski, « Léa Pool : surdose de rose », La Presse, 21 janvier 2012.
Isa Tousignant, "Forging New Paths. (Canadian Filmmaker Léa Pool) Interview," Take One, vol. 10, no 34 (September 2001): 24-26.
Isa Tousignant, "Humanitarius beautificitus: Pascale Bussières shines in Lea Pool’s The Blue Butterfly," Take One, vol. 12, no 45 (March-June 2004): 8.