Set in Canada’s so-called “Pioneer Days,” Maria Chapdelaine is the story of a young woman, the titular Maria, whose family lives on a farm in an isolated part of Northern Quebec. Based on the 1913 romance novel by Louis Hémon, director Sébastien Pilote missed opportunities in his adaptation.
At its heart, Maria Chapdelaine is about growing up in an era where the defining decision for young women was whom to marry. For Maria, the choice is difficult; she meets cute local farmers, charismatic fur traders, and a genteel city boy, but can only choose one husband. Actress Sara Montpetit plays Maria with a complicated combination of wide-eyed innocence and dignity; however, the film offers such a traditional take on the pioneer girl’s coming of age that it begs the question, why make it? After all, a 1983 movie adaptation already exists, one of many.
The film could add vital new material critiquing the White Supremacist reality of the Settler-Colonialism that built modern Canada. Instead, it makes vague, casually racist references to the existence of Indigenous people. Nor does the script insert much commentary about gender roles. The Maria we meet abandoned the dream of becoming a teacher to help raise her siblings. And she refuses to mourn that loss. Instead, Maria insists it’s her choice. Young women were not considered persons under the law at this time in Canadian history. Was it indeed possible for her to make a real choice? That’s another question I wish Maria Chapdelaine would ask.