The demands of her family and the stress of daily life drive the mind of a woman into permanent fantasy as a way to cope.
Normande St-Onge (Carole Laure) works in a drug store and dreams of being a cabaret dancer. Her mother, Berthe (Renée Girard), has been confined to a mental institution by Normande’s uncle, Jean-Paul (Denys Arcand). But Normande, who does not believe her mother is insane, releases her from the institution and brings her home. They live in a large house with a variety of eccentric characters, including Normande’s sister, Pierrette (Carmen Giroux), her boyfriend, Bouliane (Raymond Cloutier), and a strange magician named Carol (Reynald Bouchard). Also in the mix is a sculptor (J.-Léo Gagnon) who lives in the basement and is obsessed with creating a life-sized, nude replica of Normande.
All of these people depend on Normande in various ways, exploit her and finally reject her. The mother-daughter roles are reversed and Berthe essentially becomes Normande’s surrogate child. As Berthe slowly returns to normalcy, Normande retreats increasingly to fantasy and sexual dreams in which she is always the centre of attention and assumes the dominant role. Although rehabilitated, Berthe is returned to the institution, while Normande, desperate to be loved, is driven mad by the demands of those around her.
Widely acclaimed on its release as director Gilles Carle’s best film to date, La tête de Normande St-Onge presents perhaps the epitome of Carle’s characteristic concern with marginalized individuals living on the fringes of society, united against anything that represents an exclusive sense of normality. It also takes as a central concern a recurring theme throughout Carle’s oeuvre: the health and stability of the family unit and its reflection of the world around them.
La tête de Normande St-Onge is a rich, multi-layered film, pitiless in its critique of society, sensitive in its portrayal of outsiders doomed to continual rejection, and intense in its sensuality. Its articulation of the contradictions between personal and social normality and abnormality make it a key example of Carle’s work in the seventies.