Audrey’s Back, the Canadian dramedy that this week won the Grand Prize at France’s Canneseries television festival, is your typical coming-of-age story, says co-creator Guillaume Lambert, “just 15 years too late.”
The plot of the 10-part series, which had its international premiere in Cannes this week, follows Audrey, a coma patient who suddenly wakes up after a decade-and-a-half. An accident on prom night put her in the hospital.
Over the course of the 10 half-hour episodes, Audrey, played by series co-writer Florence Longpré, slowly returns to life, learning to talk, to walk and to remember the person she was before.
“Every episode is based on an action, to speak, to walk, to sing, because the story itself is about Audrey coming back to life,” says Lambert. “We did a lot of research with coma patients and with doctors, neuro-physicians and psychiatrists, and it is really mind-blowing how so many people express this dissonance, they don’t identify with who they were before the coma.”
With its initial set-up, Audrey’s Back could have been an illness-of-the-week style melodrama. But Lambert and Longpré cut their writing teeth on Quebecois comedy series like L’Âge adulte and Can you Hear Me?, and they know how to find the funny in even the most dramatic storylines. It helps that Audrey’s supporting cast includes some of Quebec’s best small-screen comedic actors, including Josée Deschênes as her mother Mireille and Denis Bouchard as father André. Just listening to Deschênes try to speak English — the parents switch to a very awkward form of Franglais when they don’t want Audrey to understand them — is worth the price of admission.
“We didn’t initially plan it that way, to have all comic actors, but they are from God. There is something about comic actors going into drama that can be so effective. They are so real, fragile and socially awkward,” says Lambert.
“Josie is just so good and so, so funny, it was hard to stay still as Audrey and not laugh out loud,” adds Longpré.
But Longpré took her preparation for the role seriously. She spent hours “practicing doing nothing, just lying in my kitchen, staring,” she recalls. “My boyfriend would come in and be: ‘what are you doing?’ I also did a lot of work on my voice to get that weird sound that comes when your vocal cords haven’t been used for years.”
Director Guillaume Lonergan drew up a plan for the character’s physical and verbal development, so when they would shoot out of sequence, Longpré would know exactly how well Audrey could speak, how much she could move.
“Every episode there is a distinct, but very subtle, evolution, both physically and verbally, but if you watch through the entire series, you see a tremendous evolution,” says Lonegran. “The series is very much about that evolution, about regaining the physicality that she lost.”
Visually, Audrey’s Back combines a kitchen-sink realism with surreal, fantastic touches. Audrey has a recurring vision of an 8-foot-tall man with a bird’s head who ominously watches over her as she struggles back to life.
“That was probably the most audacious idea in the script, to mix very ordinary life with something completely surreal,” says Lonegran. “But surreal is what’s in the mind of someone who’s been in a coma, in a dream state, for so many years. It was a way of expressing that visually.”
Another visual surprise is the location. Instead of Montreal, where 90 percent of all Québécois series are set, Audrey’s Back plays out in Sorel-Tracy, a small (population: 34,000) but historic city (founded in 1642) about an hour’s drive north of Montreal.
“Florence and I are both from there, from the suburbs, she’s from the north, I’m from the south,” says Lambert, “so we really relate to Audrey and that location.”
“It was a gift to be able to shoot there because it’s a city we’ve never seen on screen before,” adds Lonegran. “I think it’s time to show people that Canada isn’t just Montreal and Toronto, we don’t have to have this inferiority complex about where we’re from. We can show this very small, very specific place and its people and, as we’ve seen, these stories can travel around the world.”
There’s evidence of this global reach even in the title song for the series. In a major get, the producers secured the rights to Only Time from Irish new age superstar Enya. “We called her at her castle [in Ireland],” Lonegran recalls. “We had to show her the scene before she’d agree. But she said yes!”
Audrey’s Back is being sold worldwide by Beta Film. The series does not currently have a U.S. broadcaster.