Feature length debut by André Brassard after the short film Françoise Durocher, Waitress (1972), Il était une fois dans l’est borrows characters from six plays by Michel Tremblay (Les Belles-soeurs, Hosanna, La Duchesse de Langeais, À toi, pour toujours, ta Marie-Lou, En pièces détachées and Demain Matin, Montréal m’attend), readapted by the playwright himself in the format of three slightly intertwined short stories. After winning a million Goldstar stamps, a gullible lady (Manda Parent) is robbed in her own house by the jealous neighbors come to help her. A teenage waitress (Frédérique Collin) gets pregnant by mistake and decides to get a secret abortion she will not survive to. Despite the late warning of her returning friend la Duchesse de Langeais (Claude Gai), a drag-queen on the verge of her great rentrée (Jean Archembault) ignores that she will be humiliated by a resentful rival and ridiculed in front of the gay community of Montreal’s Main.
Considered by Marshall “the most significant representation of homosexuality within Quebec national cinema” after Claude Jutra’s À tout prendre (1972), Il était displays a pre-Stonewall attitude towards queer representation that however positions the film in stark contrast to the flood of straight-male-directed Québécois films from the 1960s and 1970s depicting queerness as predatory evil (Patry, Lord) or clownesque caricature (Fournier). As Waugh remarks, the cruel back-stabbing against the drag-queen Hosanna and the general bitterness of the queer characters towards one another is in fact counter-balanced by uplifting displays of solidarity (la Duchesse de Langeais) and tenderness (the lesbian couple played by Denise Filiatrault and Amulette Garneau). Despite the lacking sense of queer community and political solutions in Tremblay’s play (and therefore in Brassard’s film), Il était thus grants visibility and respect to issues of queer oppression and interiorized persecution, providing “the first and most honest image of ourselves [queer subjectivities] before the beginning of our collective struggle”. (Waugh 1981, 38)
In his more recent contribution, “Fairy Tales of Two Cities, or, Queer Nation(s)/Urban Cinema” (R o T, Waugh 2006, 76-96), Waugh refers once again to Il était in the attempt to shift the axes of queer and Canadian cinemas towards a urban rather than strictly national framework. Montreal and Toronto between the 1960s and 1970s are thus considered as the stages for the re-articulation of queerness vis-à-vis US post-Stonewall models and, even more, Canadian pannational understandings of queer sexualities and geographies. The need to carve out a space for sexual marginalities in a national discourse that glosses over them is therefore greatly epitomized by Il était, along with such films as À tout prendre (1963), Winter Kept us Warm (1965), and Outrageous! (1977).