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Michèle Cournoyer

Overview of work

Michèle Cournoyer

At the Limits of Non-verbalism
By Marco de Blois

Confrontational relationships between men and women form the thematic core of Michèle Cournoyer’s work, which covers a gamut of situations ranging from the tribulations of married life (A Feather Tale) and sexual desire (Accordion) to the dramatic repercussions of incest (The Hat) and our obsession with ageing (Dolorosa). Michèle Cournoyer takes the point of view of female characters to create images that are both painful and darkly humorous. The emotions generated by her work are frequently disquieting.

<strong><em>A Feather Tale</em></strong> (1992). © NFB<strong><em>An Artist</em></strong> (1994). © NFB
A Feather Tale (1992). © NFBAn Artist (1994). © NFB

Yet because Cournoyer’s art defies any attempt at clear-cut, literal categorization, it would be impossible to pinpoint one theme that accurately defines her work. Her films take us to the limits of non-verbalism in an almost surrealistic manner. They are reminiscent of dreams, each unfolding as the uncontrolled expression of an often suppressed, secret, inner reality. It is not surprising that she creates astonishing and obsessive associations between female characters and objects, which generally become outward representations of a trauma or passion.

<strong><em>The Hat</em></strong> (1999). © NFB<strong><em>Accordion</em></strong> (2004). © NFB
The Hat (1999). © NFBAccordion (2004). © NFB

Michèle Cournoyer laid the groundwork for her style with Old Orchard Beach, P.Q. (1981), a fantasy that takes place on a southern beach. A woman on vacation suffers from hallucinations in which giant lobsters embody the object of her desire. In The Hat (1999), a young woman is haunted by the recurring memory of incestuous sexual abuse. Cournoyer forcefully communicates the woman’s suffering through the continuous resurfacing of the image of the hat worn by the molester. The filmmaker carries this approach to an extreme with Accordion (2003), her most abstract film from a narrative perspective, in which she presents a sexual encounter that transpires over the Internet. The bodies of the protagonists, who are electronically driven by their desire, ultimately fuse with the computer components.

Michele Cournoyer has experimented with computerization (An Artist, 1994), but usually prefers working with traditional techniques. Her last two films (The Hat and Accordion) were done entirely with ink drawings on paper. She sometimes uses rotoscoping, a technique that enables her to capture reality so as to be in a better position to undermine it. The most remarkable feature of her work is unquestionably the way she builds her stories around a steadily increasing number of metamorphoses. Images ceaselessly mutate as they are transformed by her boundless imagination. The flood of transmutations is not unlike what can be found in the work of early animators who made films with no specific narrative base in mind (Émile Cohl, for instance). Her films are also evocative of the pioneering work of Alexandre Alexeïeff and Jacques Drouin.

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