In July of 2010 I received a short note from the author:
Bonjour David Birnbaum.
Je suis Gaétan Soucy, l’auteur de L’Immaculée Conception. Je viens de voir votre excellent film… Je souhaiterais vous rencontrer afin que nous puissions dialoguer autour d’un projet aussi fou que celui que vous avez de mettre en scène ce roman. Je ne doute pas que vous en soyez capable de mener à terme un projet aussi difficile.
I met Gaétan later that summer, in his kitchen in Hochelaga-Maisonneuve, as construction workers steadfastly tore apart a house just outside his window. He had watched my films and wanted to discuss my take on the novel.
I was aware of the political and cultural conflict inherent in bringing a great Québecois novel to the screen in English, especially given the time and place of the book. However, I am also a child of Québec, having spent my first 25 years in Montréal, yet as a child effectively isolated from the surrounding Québecois culture as if on a neighbouring island in an alternate religious community, an experience that I believe gave me particular insight into the oppressive and hyper-religious period in Quebec society depicted in the novel. Furthermore, as the main characters of L’Immaculée conception appeared to represent this divide and this island-like alienation, I was confident my outsider’s take on the story could only serve the film and expand its reach. I could demonstrate just how universal the story is, bring it into the larger world, and do justice to its colossal scale.
Over the next few years, I had the privilege to meet Gaétan on and off, often spending hour after hour in front of the small computer screen in his front room watching scenes from dozens of films that had moved us both over the years – Tarr’s Werkmeister Harmonies seemed to have equally caught us in a broadside (the scene at the hospital in particular). We watched some Haneke, some Bergman, even Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank. I brought him Wojciech Has’s Hourglass Sanatorium, and Andersson’s Songs from the Second Floor (and that tremendous scene of child sacrifice), Pálfi’s Taxidermia, as well as films by János Szász and Victor Erice’s El Espíritu de la Colmena (and in particular, that little girl’s similarity to one who kept showing up in Soucy’s books).
As I developed the script further I would send over the occasional copy for his review. The last one was couriered to his home in early March of this year. Sadly, I never managed to get his direct feedback on this last version. But then a strange thing happened: At the memorial service in July I was approached by one of Soucy’s literary friends whom I had met a year earlier along with Gaétan at the Détour bistro at the top of the author’s street. He said he had been at the author’s home a few weeks earlier. “Gaétan told me he read the new screenplay that you sent. He said it was very different from the novel, but that you had succeeded in capturing its essence.” As grateful as I was to be able to hear this, what struck me then is how a simple willing messenger can carry one’s words beyond what could seem an impassable frontier.
A note is pinned on the bulletin board above my writing desk. It is a printout of a line I received by email from Gaétan, very late one night after I had returned from one of our marathon film screenings:
Simplement pour te dire, mon ami, avant d’aller me coucher, que je suis convaincu que tu porteras le projet d’ImCon à terme et que tu en feras un grand film, qui comptera peut-être dans l’histoire. Ce film sera ton enfer et ton salut.
Bonjour David Birnbuam,
I am Gaétan Soucy, writer of The Immaculate Conception.
I watched your excellent film… I would like to meet you to discuss a project crazy enough as the one you want to make into a film. I have no doubt that you are capable enough to complete such a difficult task.
Just to tell you, my friend, before going to bed, I am convinced that you will carry the ImCon project forward to its completion and will make a great film, which will go down in history. This film will be your hell and your salvation.