L’abîme d’espoir

Arts: Cinema

L’abîme d’espoir (The Abyss of Hope)

Poignant story of love, jazz and steam engines from The French-Canadian Film Board

Review originally published GTG May 2009


Montreal, Apr 19th:

Where do I start with this stunning story?

This is the long awaited biopic of Rip Street, the legendary Montreal jazz quartet fronted by the late Stefan Melon, immortal champion of New Wave Candescent Jazz. Directed in black and white by arthouse cinema legend Claude Bardot (credits: Le déchirement de soif, L’amour de vapeur, Lesbo Teen Killers 1 – 7) and staring French idol Jean Michelle LeGroin (credits: Le Paradoxe de Waddon, Durer l’arrêt Ville Grise, Lesbo Teen Killers 4 & 6) this film is worth the wait.

The renowned quartet, a group of tone deaf steam enthusiasts, took jazz to new heights of surrealism during the heady winter of ’73. Then, just when it seemed they had the whole of Quebec at their feet it all ended as quickly as it had begun, with Stefan’s tragic suicide over his lost love Olga.

Such was the excitement among the group’s fans that pirated copies of the movie were in circulation before filming had even begun. But however eager you may be I recommend you wait for the official version. The pirate copies are spoilt by tinny soundtracks and clumsy overdubbing in Cantonese which undermines the brooding atmosphere of early ’70s Montreal.

The story starts in spring 1973 with the chance meeting at a steam fair of the quartet’s three members: Stefan (trumpet, vocals); Louis Mounthatton (drums), and the incomparable Hugo Creldo, a certified schizophrenic able to simultaneously play two instruments (sax & double base).

Each struggling with their own demons and an obsession with model steam engines, the group finds mutual salvation in their common interest in cutting edge jazz. Together they created and refined the New Wave Candescent Sound, which although using only two notes (3 at weekends) nevertheless managed to merge the better elements of freeform jazz and funk with a subtle groove element and a cheeky hint of calypso that endeared them to so many fans.

The highlight of the film is the 45 minute leaf-fall sequence, filmed in a single intense shot, when Stefan considers life without love or epoxy resin. I was transfixed as Stefan watched a sequence of leaves falling from a dying maple tree. 1…2……..3……….4 the leaves fall, barely five minutes between each, whilst Stefan sits in absolute silence, a single tear forming in his eye. By the 7th leaf I was on the edge of my seat! Would there be 8? 9 even? I was gasping with excitement, but won’t spoil it for you: you’ll have to see the film to find out!

Stefan is saved from his morose self lothing when he is bumped into by Olga, a quadriplegic Russian emigre jazz singer (‘The Singing Torpedo’) who is having difficulty steering her motorized iron lung. They fall instantly in love, and head back to her flat for an erotically charged night driven by lust as they make passionate love in her iron lung. The scene is spoilt by their sharing a post coital cigaret, which was a little in bad taste I think, and is probably responsible for the film’s 18 certificate.

Sadly, as we all know, the ever fickle Olga (for whom the relationship was only ever physical) runs, or rather rolls off with an itinerant dock worker, leaving Stefan in the depths of despair. Unable to face life without Olga, Stefan decides to kill himself by listening to a constant loop recording of Highland Dance music.

In a cruel twist we think it all might end well, as Olga realizes her mistake and rushes back to find Stefan, only to fail when a wheel falls off her iron lung, leaving her desperately waiting for roadside assistance whilst in a split screen (nice period touch – Ed) we see Stefan drifting into an agonized oblivion to the sound of Scotland The Brave.

If I could find one other fault with the production, it is in the attempt to tell such a rich story in only 4 and a half hours. I for one wished for at least another hour. But commercial constraints being what they are, its hard to fault. Simply brilliant!

Crispen de la Bon

L’abîme d’espoir (The Abyss of Hope)

Rating:               18
Running time:         270 minutes
Director:             Claude Bardot
Starring:             Jean Michelle LeGroin, Olga ‘The Singing Torpedo’ (as herself)
Greyscale Rating:     Platinum