When Celine Dion's husband died earlier this year, his role in an infamously offensive film was curiously absent from many obits.
When asked what you know about René Angélil, you'd probably say he was Celine Dion's husband, manager, father of her kids, and the architect of her rise to global superstardom. And you'd be right.
When he died of throat cancer last month, the Montreal-born impresario was given a lavish funeral, and tributes poured in from across the entertainment world. Most of the tributes and obits focused on his stunningly successful career managing his wife. One weird detail that was left out, however, was his brief appearance in a film that changed both the Quebec film industry and Quebec's then-notoriously conservative, Catholic Church–dominated culture.
The movie was called Après-ski. Its US English title is Snowballin'. It's a soft-core, lowest-of-low-brow ski comedy, barely watchable today. But shortly after its 1971 release, it became massively controversial, and extremely profitable, pulling in about $2 million [$1.4 million USD] at a time when admission was around $1.75.
There's enough in the movie to make a modern and easily outraged viewer's head explode. The question of consent, for instance, doesn't really ever come up, especially in the scene when two guys manhandle a maid (she laughs their grabby advances off). The movie can, at times, be racist, ageist, and homophobic—which is where René Angélil comes in.
In the mid-60s, Angélil and Pierre Labelle co-founded Les Baronets, a French-language boy band known for Beatles covers. Angélil and Labelle make their cameos in Après-ski near the end of the film, in a four-and-a-half-minute scene that comes out of nowhere and has nothing to do with the plot. Sitting in a bar, Angélil is teaching Labelle, a virgin, how to pick up chicks, and arranges a rendezvous with a stranger's friend spotted across the room. Labelle rushes upstairs after getting the go-ahead, only to be greeted by... a gay dude! He fends off the gay dude's pawing and flees, terrified. Hilarious, no? (No, it's really not.)
Again, it's not a good movie, and its director Roger Cardinal admits it. Now splitting his time between his home in the South Shore community of Boucherville and Costa Rica, Cardinal says that as goofy as the movie was, it and others like it birthed the Quebec film industry.
"There wasn't even an editing room in Quebec at the time," he told VICE. "There was no industry at all."
He says the federal government was pouring money into developing a Canadian film industry, and that meant getting equipment and training personnel. Back then, Cardinal says, "It was all sexploitation."
Après-ski was following in the footsteps of a budding softcore industry that began with Denis Héroux's 1969 film, Valérie. Others in the genre include Héroux's 1970 follow-up L'initiation, Claude Fournier's Deux femmes en or (1970), and Roger Fournier's Pile ou face (1971).
The movies scandalized Quebec society at the time. The Quiet Revolution was in full swing and the Catholic Church's hold over daily life was slipping, but there were limits to how permissive the builders of a new Quebec wanted it to be.
Héroux, who died last December, famously said that, with Valérie, he wanted to "déshabiller les petites québécoises" ("undress little Quebec girls"). The expression is less creepy and more layered in French than it is in English. It was meant to be taken as keeping in the spirit of the Quiet Revolution, to shrug off the paternalistic, anti-sex atmosphere that had dominated the province for so long (while still sounding titillating, and still kind of creepy).
But the company that produced most of those movies, Cinepix, wasn't so high-minded, according to Alan Randolph Young, a Concordia University postgrad (and former VICE contributor) specializing in early Quebec softcore. Its founder, John Dunning, considered Canada's King of the Bs, earned comparisons to Roger Corman, and helped launch the careers of David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman. Cinepix also produced the Bill Murray classic Meatballs, one of the highest-grossing Canadian films of all time. He never denied the fact that the filmes de fesses were all about making money.
But commercially minded or not, the movies did freak out the province's intellectual and moral establishment.
"They did become a point of consternation in the media over how they defined Quebec as a nation, so there was a lot of hand-wringing towards them," says Young. "But it also spoke to a generational divide, because a lot of the resistance to them came from corners like the Catholic Church, the stricter, more conservative areas."
However, the filmmakers' politics were something of a mystery. Young says one curious aspect about these movies was how, even as they pushed boundaries on free speech, they weren't always that revolutionary in spirit.
"They seem to be copping the feel of the counterculture, the hippie-ness, the sexual openness," he says, "but at the same time have these reactionary politics. By the end of these movies, there's usually some 'turning-back point'... where the protagonist realizes he shouldn't be so exploratory. There's a contradiction in it."
Nevertheless, following a complaint by a Quebec City priest, Après-ski was declared an obscene movie by the Bureau de surveillance du cinéma, and fined $500—a laughable amount, given that the movie took in about $2 million (about $12 million today [$8.6 million USD]) on a budget of around $250,000 [$180,000 USD], according to its director, Cardinal. It was so popular it was distributed to the UK and US, where it was spliced with scenes from actual pornos to spice things up even more.
The movie seems to hold a special place in Cardinal's heart. You can tell he's both fond of and somewhat embarrassed by it. "Après-ski is not the movie I want to be remembered by. I'm not proud of it, but I did make my name with it."
Cardinal went on to a successful career in Canadian movies, with a Genie nomination for his 1988 feature Malarek (he'd lose to David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers), and now teaches cinema. And for all its controversy, Après-ski went on to become a cult classic, and its soundtrack was recently reissued.
"I asked my students how many of them had heard of it," he says. Very few had. "So I told them to go home and ask their fathers or grandfathers—and nearly all of them said they'd seen it."
Follow Patrick Lejtenyi on Twitter.