A girl takes a wild ride on the metro in Montreal. Travelling from station to station, she encounters an array of colourful characters in a bizarre musical journey that’s peppered with hilarious and unexpected incidents. This joyful, heartwarming animated film portrays Montreal in all its vitality, creativity and diversity, with plenty of humour and good cheer, to the tune of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s timeless hit “Complainte pour Ste-Catherine.”
A girl takes a ride on the Montreal metro, which becomes the unlikely venue for a strange and wonderful musical journey.
A girl encounters an array of colourful, extravagant characters during a wild ride on the Montreal metro. As she travels from station to station, and winter turns into spring, her increasingly strange and surprising journey includes random appearances by furniture movers, mounted police, a pickpocket, some singing nuns, a clown, several famous Montreal personalities, and much more. This joyful, heartwarming animated film captures the city in all its vitality, creativity and diversity, to the tune of Kate and Anna McGarrigle’s timeless hit “Complainte pour Ste-Catherine.” Whimsical, funny and full of good cheer, The Girl with the Red Beret celebrates harmony and togetherness in its lighthearted look at the vagaries of taking public transit. The film borrows from elements of everyday life to create an irresistible celebration of the city.
The famous Kate and Anna McGarrigle song ‘Complainte pour Ste-Catherine’ is a Quebec folk-pop anthem from the 1970s. Where did the idea of turning it into a film come from?
I enjoy animating to pre-existing music, and I’ve always loved ‘Complainte pour Ste-Catherine.’ It has a good beat and a catchy tune, so I thought it would make a fun film. I also thought it might be a good fit for the NFB, which has produced successful animated films based on folk songs. Films like Blackfly, The Cat Came Back and Log Driver’s Waltz, whose title song was also performed by the McGarrigle sisters.
The song is quite visual, and you are a prolific writer yourself. Was it a challenge to step back from the song and bring your own ideas to it?
When I read Philippe Tatartcheff’s lyrics closely, the way forward wasn’t immediately obvious. The lyrics are playful and filled with somewhat odd imagery, imagery it wouldn’t make sense to illustrate literally, as one would for a videoclip. I wanted to create a universe inspired by the song, so I chose Montreal’s subway system—the ‘Metro’ mentioned at the beginning of the song—as my starting point, and the story took off from there, allowing me to incorporate details suggested by the lyrics.
Incidentally, the iconic ‘doo doo doooo’ sound that some Metro trains make when they start moving is in the same key as the song, so it was clearly meant to be.
And how would you describe this world you created?
I love naïve art and folk art. These paintings often depict scenes of winter streets, greasy spoons, or alleys filled with playing children, but for some reason, never the Metro. It’s like the world stopped in the 1960s. I created the film’s art design with the idea of making a modern work of pop art but set in the Metro.
Kate McGarrigle died in 2010. How did you present the project to her sister, Anna? And can you talk more specifically about the work done on the recording?
I’ve known the McGarrigles since ‘Complainte pour Ste-Catherine’ was first released in 1974. One of the first things I did was contact Anna to find out more about the song. She was pleased to learn the song would be used for an animated film. She gave me an idea of how some of the lyrics came about and their meanings, and how the song was developed.
Some of the film was animated based on the original recording. But ‘Complainte pour Ste-Catherine’ lasts two-and-a-half minutes, and I had a five-minute story to tell, so I had to make some additions. Composer and sound designer Judith Gruber-Stitzer adapted the song to organically fit with the film. But since we didn’t have access to the original masters, we had to re-record it.
Kate and Anna McGarrigle were known for including their extended family in their shows, and the soundtrack for The Girl with the Red Beret is no exception. Almost the entire family came to the NFB to sing. Kate and Anna’s daughters, Martha Wainwright and Lily Lanken, sang the main parts.
We were also able to include certain musicians from the 1974 album, and others who have played with the family for years. They have all remained friends and still perform together.
We tried to keep the new version as close as possible to the original. Judith suggested that various characters in the film also sing, making it a joyful tune to which everyone could sing along. Just as the arrangement includes the iconic sound of the Metro starting, the emblematic sounds of Montreal’s church bells are also heard. Even the birds join in!
Montrealers are famous for complaining about the city and its transit system, including the Metro. It feels like you wanted to counteract this perception and create a joyful tribute to Montreal. Is that accurate?
Interestingly, the film was started as the NFB was moving its headquarters to downtown Montreal. In fact, the route that the girl with the red beret takes is intentional. She travels from Du Collège to Place-des-Arts stations. So at the start, you see the old NFB building in the borough of Saint-Laurent and at the end, you see the new building in the Quartier des Spectacles.
I’ve worked at the NFB for years, and I’d always driven there, but it was time to start using public transit. I found that taking the Metro can be faster than driving, and I actually enjoy the ride. The system runs well, and I can use the time to read, play games, write letters, or take notes.
The film features several simultaneous storylines, and there are many surprises. It’s impossible to take it all in in one viewing. Were you looking to spark discussion, or was it just for humour’s sake?
There are so many people in the Metro, so many small stories happening at once. I wanted to include as many characters and storylines as possible. It was a real challenge, because you don’t want the viewer’s eye to stray from the main action. I had to make sure that the most important thing in any given shot was clear, and I had to sacrifice some really fun animation bits because they were just too distracting.
The film’s humour is different from my other films, which can be satirical, ironic or darkly funny. The Girl with the Red Beret uses observational comedy, which is a commentary on everyday life. It seems to me that whenever you take the subway, you’ll see something intriguing or funny just about anywhere you look. The film contains many absurd gags, jokes and nonsense—just the sorts of things that should not happen in the Metro.
What emotion do you want audiences to feel?
I hope The Girl with the Red Beret will make people laugh and impart a sense of joy.