La Maison-Bleue: laughter, fabriqué au Québec
What would have happened if Quebec had become a country following the 1995 referendum? To find out, I set out to watch the first two episodes of La Maison-Bleue—three at most. Without even realizing it, I got caught up in the game: suddenly, it was 1:00 in the morning and I had watched the entire first season and wanted more. During our interview, director Ricardo Trogi told me: “I hope people have the patience to watch a few episodes before deciding whether they like the show or not. You have to allow stories to develop to know if you are interested.” He hadn’t warned me that three episodes in it would be hard to stop.
It is hard to describe what La Maison-Bleue feels like since few current shows resemble it. It is as though some of the silly characters from La petite vie had been dropped in The West Wing. Ricardo Trogi explains where this idea came from: “At first, Daniel Savoie and I wanted to create a series about a Quebec version of the CIA—maybe some kind of Quebecois James Bond with fewer resources. I imagined all this in the context of a funny, independent Quebec and this angle appealed to the broadcaster Radio-Canada. We seem to be the first to present a fictitious independent Quebec on-screen. We developed the concept for La Maison-Bleue following the institutions of the American political system in a universe beyond reality and, above all, really funny. By the way, the president has stomach problems, neighbourhood problems, marriage problems—more than political problems.”
To create a series taking place in an independent Quebec was a bold choice since it could have caused turmoil among the masses. Indeed, the independence of Quebec periodically comes up in the media. The director obviously wanted to move away from this discussion: “We did not want to take a stand and ignite debates between the Liberals and the Péquistes. We do not promote or campaign for any cause whatsoever. I just wanted to go somewhere else to make people laugh. That is why we are moving away from reality by drawing inspiration from the American system. It is a republic with regional governors. All States are equally clumsy—in the series, Quebec looks ridiculous, but so do Canada and the United States. No one is smarter than the others, and that’s what makes it funny.”
Known for his comedy projects, Ricardo Trogi has remained true to himself with this series. With La Maison-Bleue, he enjoys creating characters who are driven but have few means to achieve their goals. “What makes me laugh is people with great ambitions which they cannot afford. In one of the storylines, Quebec tries to buy a military submarine. Where and how to buy a submarine? Whom to call? How much does it cost? We move away from common sense and it becomes silly—it’s a big joke with a lot of laughs.”
If the characters in the series cannot afford their aspirations, the director certainly does not place himself above such challenges: “Our ambitions to laugh at the ambitions of others have made this the most difficult series I have ever worked on. In film and TV, I would like to do great things, but I don’t always have the means. I have three days of filming for a 30-minute episode, but I could easily use five. It is a daily challenge for me. We had to work hard to shoot faster and keep our budget for artistic direction. We had to find a house that looked like the White House, plush enough to pretend it was a president’s house. An oval office similar to that of the American president had to be built in the studio. It’s a large-scale series that requires many characters. We need costumes for a Quebec army. We need special effects to create a submarine and a secret base. All this generates staggering costs compared to what we usually do in Quebec. Therefore, it’s easy to transpose the challenges which our characters are facing to our reality as creators, and vice versa.”
Despite the limitations and challenges inherent to television production, the team made a point of presenting the most polished series possible. As Ricardo Trogi points out: “We shot it in a sustained, serious way with beautiful camera movements. I kept the direction very simple, very classic. In fact, it’s directed and acted out like a drama series. Nobody makes caricatural expressions, even though the dialogue is completely absurd. Moreover, Guy Nadon was cast as the president because he is very credible and he usually plays serious roles. When he says all this nonsense, it is really funny!”
This is a successful formula. And although the tenth episode could have been the series finale, La Maison-Bleue has been renewed for a second season. Until next time? Certainly! This is good news for us viewers, since we didn’t want it to end there.