perfect pie (2002)


director: barbara willis sweete

wendy crewson, barbara williams, tom mccamus

The Canadian Gothic is probably the only unique kind of story this country has produced. It implicates family and friends in a difficult reunion where some kind of dark secret will be revealed. It can happen in a city, but for reasons long forgotten it’s most often set in the country. It’s been made into novels and plays and movies, in French and English, and its eternal appeal probably says something profound about this country that I haven’t the time or space to explore here.

Barbara Willis Sweete’s Perfect Pie, based on a Judith Thompson play, is as fine an example of the Canadian Gothic as you’ll see this year. Francesca, once known as Marie, is a famous but desperately unhappy opera singer lured back to her hometown to do a benefit by her oldest friend, the haunted but happily domestic Patsy. The Great Secret, which the film edges around maddeningly for almost its entire duration, happened thirty years ago, and involves the primal elements of small-town class conflict, alcoholism, and girlish sexuality and boyish thuggishness combining in rape, along with that potent national symbol, a railway line. It’s the catastrophe that sent Marie away to become Francesca, and left Patsy cursed with seizures.

South of the border in Hollywood, Perfect Pie would be called a “women’s picture”, the kind of quality melodrama that starred Joan Crawford fifty years ago, and Susan Sarandon today. Not surprisingly, in Canada these stories are often written by women - Thompson, Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields are reliable purveyors.

Once upon a time, this story would have been told with a minimum of glamour and a maximum of squalor, but times have changed, and Canadians like to tell a beautiful story these days. Wendy Crewson as Patsy is no haggard frump, and gives scant contrast to Barbara Williams’ Francesca urban glamour. The actresses who play their younger selves in flashbacks are even less distinguishable, and the young Marie’s status as social outcast is undercut by Alison Pill’s silky blonde hair, and a design aesthetic that almost makes the 70s look attractive.

Perfect Pie is a Rhombus Media production, and subscribes to the “beauty first” rule of filmmaking, which turned Francesca from and actress in the original play to an opera singer, making room for snatches of Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas that are supposed to suggest the sublime beauty that redeems unhappy lives, but mostly feels forced and precious and showcases some mighty poor lipsynching.