Cinema Revisited: Denys Arcand (even masters make mistakes)

Jesus-of-Montreal

First of all, doesn’t Denys Arcand kind of look a little bit like John Waters? Hm. Despite this jarring similarity, let’s take a look back at the work of one of Canada’s most internationally-renowned auteurs. But when we aim to “revisit” cinema, what is it exactly that we are doing? In my view, it is one of two things: recuperation or time-testing. In the act of recuperation, a formerly-maligned film might be re-read to excavate some previously unnoticed qualities, or perhaps to highlight the usefulness of those of its qualities which were used against it in contemporary criticism (think of Paul Verhoeven’s now-cult-classic 1995 film Showgirls ). In the act of time-testing, we try to see how a film “holds up”, and whether the praise it originally received is still relevant today.

One of the first films that garnered Arcand major notice was the Oscar-nominated and multi-Genie-winning Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986), a comedy-drama about the intimate conversations and relationships among a group of intellectual friends (professors, no less) before and during a dinner party. As the first of the “unofficial” trilogy, onto which 2003′s Les invasions barbares and 2007′s L’age des tenebres were added, Le d é clin…   offers a not-so-subtle critique of contemporary capitalism and Western sexual morality. The critique, however, is not an outright attack; rather, Arcand’s skill as a writer (he wrote the script, too) allows the seamless and engaging dialogues coming from the fleshed-out characters to speak for themselves. The film doesn’t “take a stand” on the issues it explores; rather, it opens the door for a viewer to observe, collect and, individually judge information about the characters and their situations. Indeed, the characters are so eloquent, verbose, and almost   annoyingly opinionated that the film lays its themes bare without much evident construction, as when the character of Dominique, the chairperson of the Université de Montréal’s History Department, goes on an extended tirade about the decline of the influence of history, the decline of both personal and social responsibility, and the inevitability of these destructive processes.

The Oscar-winning Les invasions barbares   revisits the same kinds of situations, debates, and characters that we met in the previous film, but it’s actually   L’age des tenebres that takes the philosophy of moral, sexual, social, historical, and political decline to a whole new (and hilarious) level. Our sad little protagonist, the family man and civil servant Jean-Marc, is in a sort of personal decline (his teenage daughter is rebellious and promiscuous, his wife is aloof and snappy, his coworkers are despondent and sarcastic) that is mirrored by a mysteriously unnamed yet instantly recognizable socio-political decline (Jean-Marc dons a germ mask over his mouth as he enters a crowded commuter train to travel to work; he isn’t the only one wearing it). In the context of its ostensible ridiculousness (who wears a germ mask in public? Come on!) the film actually approaches the brilliance of the kind of quasi-contemporary science-fiction that offers the harshest criticism of modern life due to its proximity-yet-distance from our own recognizable world. While Les invasions.. . and Le déclin…  certainly stand the test of time as smart, character-driven, dialogue-rich dark comedies, it’s L’age des tenebres that really pushes the envelope with its daringly unlikely yet familiar scenarios (hint: the film’s conclusion veers into LARP territory).

Jessica Paré in "15 Moments"

Jessica Paré in “15 Moments”

Outside of the trilogy of decline, I’m afraid I have some bad news for you, dear reader: obviously, I had to revisit 15 Moments (2000), in light of Canadian beauty Jessica Paré’s sudden stardom as Don Draper’s second wife Megan on Mad Men.   The conclusion? This film does not pass the time-test. The attempt here is interesting: the story follows a young female hockey player in Cornwall, Ontario, as she is “discovered” for her photogenic beauty and thrust into the world of global fame and fortune. Obviously, Arcand’s usual concerns (social and sexual relationships, contemporary capitalism, Western popular culture) are central again, but the film’s execution is perhaps delusionally ambitious and the work eventually turns into a satire of itself (intentional? Hard to tell.) All the “millenial” signatures are there: frantic editing, dystopian media criticism, and a self-consciousness bordering on narcissism all infect the film deeply and make it difficult — almost impossible — to watch. Despite the fact that the film is intriguingly star-studded (Frank Langella! Dan Aykroyd! Robert Lepage!), it’s sadly unwatchable and proves that even the most attuned master of cinema can take a bad misstep or two. One wonders to what extent the film’s failure has to do with the fact that it is one of Arcand’s only English-language works; this is not to say that the filmmaker is somehow incapable of communicating in this language/culture, but only to suggest that perhaps some of the tropes and issues with which he is centrally concerned in his oeuvre may translate differently to another milieu.

I hope I have not been too harsh here on Monsieur Arcand; let us end on an achingly beautiful note with the supreme, seminal, and inarguably timeless Jésus de Montréal (1989). A group of actors is gathered to perform a contemporary revival of the Passion Play but their private lives and relationship begin to both mimic and contrast the play’s events and philosophies in complicated ways. In addition to the admirably self-reflexive commentary on performance and fiction that the film aims to get across, it’s also a heartbreakingly honest, character-driven study of love, loss, and mortality. As a non-religious person myself, a film like this really communicates effectively the very important binding role that faith plays in relationships and communities. We might even say that a faith like Catholicism isn’t so far removed from the passions and desires found in a faith like cinephilia; Arcand’s film toys with both. With Jés us de Montréa l , and his trilogy of decline, it’s no wonder Arcand has secured himself a spot in world cinema as a consistent and thoughtful master of cinematic narrative. At least he recovered fairly quickly from the mess of that awful Paré thing. The lesson to be learned is that even masters make mistakes.


Jovana is a critic, cultural worker, and student of media aesthetics. Her writing has appeared in Afterimage, C Magazine, and the Canadian Journal of Film Studies, among other publications. In addition to cinema, her interests include cheese, wine, etymology, tennis, celebrity gossip, and the politics of representation.

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