by Natasha Shalliker
Throughout Les bons débarras there are many scenes in which characters interact over food and drink. However, protagonist Manon – the troubled and trouble-making daughter of single mother, Michelle – does not eat at all throughout the course of the film, and her lack of appetite becomes a subject of narrative concern. For Manon, food is a vehicle of control and a way for her to exercise power as she works to make her dream — to have her mother’s love all to herself — a reality.
One of the most pivotal scenes of the entire film centres on Manon’s refusal to consume a hot dog during her birthday party. During this scene, Manon refuses the hot dog in the same moment that her rude, cruel, manipulative comments and rule-breaking behaviour come to the fore; she tells her mother that Michelle’s boyfriend has molested her. Although we have no way of knowing whether or not this is true, Manon’s manipulative behaviour throughout the film causes us to doubt the veracity of her statement. As a result, Michelle ends her relationship with Maurice, which means that Manon can monopolize her mother’s attention once more.
Manon’s eating habits interfere with Michelle’s dating life later in the film, as well. When Michelle and Gaëtan get dinner at a hotel, Manon refuses the invitation to go in and eat with them. Here, Michelle seems to hit a breaking point; instead of going to eat without her daughter, she shakes Manon violently and interrogates her, “Why do you always hurt me? Do you like it?” She then turns away and breaks down in tears. After this emotional exchange, the camera cuts to Manon, attempting to cut a steak in the restaurant. Manon does not succeed in cutting the meat but seems content in settling back into her mother’s arms. At this point Michelle asks Manon, “Don’t you like it?” Manon replies that she does but that she wants to save it for her dog, Princess, since Princess would enjoy it more. In rejecting the steak and in redirecting it to the dog, Manon reveals that her pleasure in this case is not derived from consumption. Just as “the collar Manon steals [signifies] a control device,” giving the meat to the dog demonstrates how in control she is of her pet, herself, and Michelle and Gaëtan’s relationship (Pallister 253).
These two aborted meals are a litmus test of the balance of power, with Manon firmly if not literally in the driver’s seat. Manon desires nothing more than to be the only one in her mother’s life; when the movie ends, this desire has been fulfilled, but with disastrous consequences.
Les Bons DéBarras. Dir. Francis Mankiewicz. Perf.Charlotte Laurier, Marie Tifo, et Germain Houde. Pan-Canadian Film Distributors; International Film Exchange (IFEX), 1980. DVD.
Pallister, Janis L. “Québec Film as a Mirror of Society: The Couple; The Family; Encounters with Death; Children.” The Cinema of Québec: Masters in Their Own House. Madison, N.J.: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1995. 229-303. Print.
Photo by Alexia Moyer