The search for marital bliss leads two couples along a deadly path to criminality in French-Canadian drama C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married). DQ hears about the show from stars François Létourneau and Marilyn Castonguay and director Jean-François Rivard.
From its opening scene, which begins with the discovery of four dead bodies floating face-down in a bloodied swimming pool, to interview scenes cut straight out of a documentary and the claim it is based on a book, it’s difficult to place French-Canadian drama C’est comme ça que je t’aime (Happily Married).
As the 10-part series unfolds, it seems there’s nothing conventional about this “almost true” story of the Sainte-Foy killers in the 1970s.
Blending crime and relationship drama with Coen Brothers humour, the series introduces two couples in crisis, who are confronted by their failing relationships after dropping off their children at summer camp. At a time when divorce is still taboo, their path to marital bliss leads them down a murderous path, turning ordinary suburbanites into Quebec’s most infamous criminals.
Yet it’s to the show’s credit that the characters – Gaétan and Huguette Delisle and Serge and Micheline Paquette – remain entirely endearing and likeable as they find an unhealthy way to inject some excitement into their mundane lives.
The Radio-Canada Télé series, produced by Productions Casablanca and distributed by Cineflix Rights, comes from writer François Létourneau, who also stars as Gaétan. It’s his latest partnership with director Jean-François Rivard, the pair having previously written Les Invincibles and Série Noire together. Tackling the writing alone this time out, Létourneau admits Happily Married is quite different from his previous work.
“Maybe it’s more personal,” he says. “It’s a crazy story, rooted in some childhood memories of growing up in Sainte-Foy. My parents had a very difficult relationship. I went to summer camp and, when I came back, they announced they were getting a divorce. I could draw from my own experience, but my parents did not kill anyone – they were very nice people!”
Gaétan is a frustrated man at home and at work, where he has a seemingly important job but is always forgotten or ignored by his colleagues. This leads him to find some semblance of power through an affair with Micheline (Karine Gonthier-Hyndman), under the nose of Serge (Patrice Robitaille).
Equally frustrated is Huguette (Marilyn Castonguay), Gaétan’s pregnant wife who appears to be the perfect housewife. Huguette’s first murderous steps empower her to take charge of her husband and their friends in establishing their life of crime.
“I’m trapped in my little life,” Létourneau says of his character. “When Huguette becomes a criminal, we all follow her; and because I’m frustrated in my life, the criminality becomes a gateway to something new. It’s like that also for Micheline and Serge. We’re all a little bit trapped. Our lives are boring.
“At the beginning of the show, I felt everyone could relate to sometimes feeling trapped and that your life lacks excitement. The story starts slowly. We’re not in the criminal world, so we feel for the characters; we like them. We also chose very sympathetic actors like Patrice and Marilyn. Then afterwards we can follow their crazy story. We won’t accept everything they will do, but we know why they’re doing it. Every time in the story we kill somebody or we do something bad, there’s always a good reason, except maybe in the end. But it’s not gratuitous.”
Castonguay (L’Affaire Dumont) says it’s rare to see a character like Huguette on screen, mixing power with sensitivity. “She wants to be a modern wife, a modern woman and to be able to do things by herself. And she doesn’t like her husband anymore because whatever she does to be a modern woman, he always brings her back to the ground,” the actor says.
“She tries to discover new things and that’s why she goes to criminality. But it’s not her fault – it’s René [Rémi-Pierre Paquin]. He sees the ‘eye of the tiger’ in her eyes and wants her to kill someone. She tries it once and thinks she can’t do it. After that, she sees the guy she is supposed to kill again and thinks it’s a sign, so she decides to go back and kill him.”
When she auditioned for the role of Huguette, Castonguay self-recorded a tape featuring just three scenes, without having any knowledge of the overall story. But she didn’t get a call back – instead, Létourneau immediately cast her in the role.
“We see her sad with her husband and her life. She’s a nice girl. Even if she kills people, she’s still a nice girl. I think we should love her and support her,” she continues. “Before, she’s just a sheep. Micheline is powerful and free, but not Huguette is not. She’s alone and pregnant, and her husband’s having an affair with her best friend.
“After that, Micheline, Gaétan and Serge see Huguette differently and she becomes a leader. It’s an interesting road. She becomes a free woman and the leader of the group, whereas before she was just a little, scared woman. It’s the way for her to be free, to be this modern woman. It’s not the right way, but it’s the way she takes to be free. She has a real talent for it.”
For such a dark subject, the central premise is treated very lightly, with the aforementioned humour coming from a mixture of satire and farce. “I can’t write anything except something a little funny,” Létourneau says. “But the series is not always funny. What’s underneath is quite tragic. The comedy is there, but there are no funny lines. We’re trying to be true to the situation. In the writing, it’s delicate so the humour comes naturally.”
The rapid 65-day shoot took place in Montreal, which doubled for Sainte-Foy in Quebec, where both Létourneau and Rivard are originally from. Recreating the 1970s proved difficult on a tight budget, which was slightly more than the region’s average of C$600,000 (US$440,000) an episode.
“I knew we wouldn’t have enough money,” the writer recalls, “so when I told my producer I was writing a story in the 1970s, she said, ‘Are you crazy?’ I felt it had to take place in that period. It was a moment in Quebec where getting a divorce was complicated and rare. That’s central to my story. Now, I guess they would just split up. But when I wrote it, I tried not to add too many locations. A lot of it takes place in the houses. I tried to write something that would not be too expansive – but it was too expansive!”
Director Rivard picks up: “If the character opens a cupboard or the fridge, everything inside has to be from the 70s. When I was reading it, I was like, ‘Oh shit, oh no, oh my god.’ Everyone was like, ‘It’s just a few locations.’ But we have to dress those locations, and all the things they are using need to be made. We had such a wonderful art department – they were able to recreate those mustards, ketchups and toothpastes from the time – but that was a big challenge.”
The tight filming schedule, averaging six days per episode, meant there were limited opportunities for multiple takes, while block shooting meant scenes were filmed out of sequence to maximise the time available in each location.
Létourneau and Rivard provided a personal touch behind the camera, writing and directing all episodes respectively. “You see it from episode to episode, it’s the two same guys,” Létourneau says. “It’s not like a big series where there’s a new director every episode and there are 16 writers. I like that. It gives it a personal flavour. It’s less like an industry, it’s more like art.”
“We’ve been working together for 20 years and did our first series [Les Invincibles] the same way,” Rivard adds. “When I’m writing with François, I’m preparing at the same time. But with this one, I had all that material to get into my head and process it really quickly. If it was another writer, maybe I would fuck it up. But with François I was in the best place.”
Having received its world premiere at Berlinale earlier this year, Happily Married was recently picked up by fledgling French streamer Salto. With its off-beat tone and mix of dramatic and comedic elements, the series is sure to be universally relatable to audiences watching two couples’ frustrations with their lives, if not their murderous actions.