Les ordres has been rated by critics as one of the best Canadian films ever made. It subtly blends fiction and documentary realism in a chilling portrait of what can happen to a liberal democracy when the state imposes its power.
In October 1970, when FLQ terrorists kidnapped a British diplomat and threatened to (and later did) murder a Quebec cabinet minister, Prime Minister Trudeau sanctioned the War Measures Act and sent the Canadian army into Montreal. Close to 500 ordinary citizens who had no connection to the terrorists were summarily arrested and held without charge.
Les ordres is the story of five people who were arrested and imprisoned: Clermont Boudreau (Lapointe), a factory worker, former union representative and occasional taxi driver; his wife Marie (Loiselle); Claudette Dusseault (Forestier), a social worker; Richard Lavoie (Gauthier), an unemployed young man who cares for his two children while his wife (Clément) works as a waitress; and Dr. Jean‑Marie Beauchemin (Provost), a physician who runs a clinic in a poor neighbourhood and has campaigned as a left-wing political candidate.
The prisoners are held incommunicado, but assume they will be quickly released. They soon realize the director of the prison (Bélanger) has orders to detain them indefinitely. Prison life is a humiliating experience: the men are in solitary confinement and subjected to harassment by the guards. Lavoie is told he is to be shot and goes through a fake execution staged by three guards. Clermont Boudreau, whose father has just died, is first refused permission to see his body, and then taken to see it in the dead of night.
After six days, Marie Boudreau is told she was arrested by mistake and released. Gradually the others are released, the last after more than three weeks — without explanation or apology.
The film is Brault’s second fictional feature, and his cool, uninflected approach enables him to focus in human terms on the effects of the abrogation of rights and not on the political context.
Brault shared the prize for best director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1975, and won the Quebec Critics Association prize for best film, and three Canadian Film Awards, for best feature, direction and script.
In October 1970, the abduction of Québec labour minister Pierre LAPORTE and British diplomat James Cross, by factions of the terrorist group called the Front de Libération du Québec (FLQ), prompted Prime Minister Pierre Elliott TRUDEAU to proclaim the War Measures Act, which suspended all normal civil and legal procedures and gave the government unlimited emergency powers. Overnight, Montréal was put under siege by the Canadian army, and over 450 people were apprehended and jailed without just cause. Based on interviews with actual victims of these arrests, Michel BRAULT’s Les Ordres tells the story of five fictional characters who are snatched from their daily lives, interrogated, imprisoned and harassed without explanation other than the police’s routine answer: “We’ve got orders.” Not knowing why they are incarcerated, when they will be released or what is happening to their loved ones, the characters live in a constant state of mental anguish. Even their liberation after several days of imprisonment remains unexplained, thus denying them the basic solace of resolving this dreadful chapter of their lives.
Combining fiction and documentary, black and white and colour, interviews and re-enactments, Brault, who won the best director award at Cannes for his work on the film, draws a complex picture of this most traumatic event in Québec history. Hailed as a masterpiece (“the first true masterpiece of Québec cinema,” said critic Robert Lévesque), Les Ordres conveys the experience of utter humiliation suffered by characters who are imprisoned without just cause and mentally and physically tortured by petty officials during their incarceration. By showing his characters torn from their homes, strip-searched, thrown into solitary confinement, deprived of proper food for days, and victimized by cruel pranks such as “fake executions,” Brault relentlessly exposes the inhuman mechanisms of oppression deployed at the time. As difficult to watch as it is rewarding to analyse, Les Ordres stands out as one of the most arresting viewing experiences in Canadian film history. – Canadian Encyclopedia