Sunday, April 20, 2008

L'âge des ténèbres

Jean-Marc Leblanc (Marc Labreche) is living the ideal North American life. He has a big house, a safe civil service job, a wife who is a go-getter businesswoman, and two kids. But the wife and kids ignore him, and as for the job, it' is a help agency... he meets with people with horrifying (and also very funny, for most of the film is a black comedy) problems and explains why the government can do nothing to help them. Ah, but it's such a sensitive agency! No smoking is allowed within a mile of the government office, the word "black" cannot be applied to people (you must call them "of equatorial origin"), and when a desperate woman arrives seeking help for her sick father, she is told the offices are closed for sensitivity training. You want the people who "help" you to be sensitive, don't you, the guard asks her. It's a lot like the film "Brazil" Punctuating this are delicious fantasy scenes in which gorgeous women swoon at the sight of our hero. But even those fantasy creatures develop minds of their own. Almost by chance, Leblanc meets a woman at a speed-dating event who leads him to a world of medieval pagentry, which Leblanc comes to realize is as phony as the commercial world he detests. The plot doesn't end here. There's struggle, resolution and redemption too.

Arcand grew up in a devoutly religious Roman Catholic home in a village about 25 miles southwest of Quebec City. He attended Jesuit school for nine years. Entering his teen years, the family moved to Montreal and although he dreamed about being a professional tennis player, while studying for a Masters Degree in history at the Université de Montréal he became involved in film making that gave him a new sense of direction. During his university days, he and several friends would drive to New York City every few months to take in European films playing there that were not available in Quebec.

The news on Jean-Marc Leblanc's radio is a stream of awful occurrences. Thousands are killed in western Canada by a bacterium. Polar ice caps are melting. Quebecers are being diagnosed with cancer at an alarming rate.

Even worse from Jean-Marc's perspective is his harsh personal reality. He hasn't had sex for 18 months with his workaholic wife, his Quebec civil service job is demeaning and unfulfilling and, at age 44, he feels his life is at a complete standstill.

Is it any wonder, then, that he frequently retreats inside his head for a fantasy world of sex, adventure and knights in shining armour?

This is the dark comic premise of L'Âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness), the exceptional new movie by veteran Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand that closed the 60th edition of the Cannes Film Festival last May.

Although it screened out of competition, it was stronger than many of the pictures competing for the Palme d'Or.

The final chapter in a trilogy of modern sex and values that began in 1986 with The Decline of the American Empire and continued with The Barbarian Invasions in 2003, it's perhaps the bleakest vision of the three films.

Yet writer/director Arcand manages to keep the mood upbeat, even while summoning empathy for Jean-Marc's view that the world is disintegrating into a mess of disease, destruction and senseless bureaucracy.

Days of Darkness is set in Montreal about 10 minutes into the future, where Quebec civil servants wearing SARS masks are punished for smoking and forced to work as drones in hockey arenas converted to office rabbit warrens.

It stars popular Quebec actor Marc Labrèche as the Walter Mitty-ish Jean-Marc, a man so dull, even the sex-crazed babes in his fantasies complain that he's a loser. In one fantasy sequence, he imagines himself as the famous author of an autobiography titled A Man of No Interest.

But it's impossible not to feel for the guy. His wife Sylvie (Sylvie Léonard) is too busy being "the third-best suburban realtor in Canada" to pay him any attention, his two daughters don't respect him and his bosses constantly berate him.

Jean-Marc is the proverbial little guy who dreams big and everyone can identify with that, even if his dreams begin to become all too real for him – such as when he's really called upon to prove that shining knight stuff.

There is little connection between this film and the previous two in the trilogy, apart from the mood of barely suppressed emotional breakdown. The characters and actors are different and the story departs from the previous narrative.

(Watch, though, for a cameo from Arcand regular Pierre Curzi, who fills us in on what happened to his character's marriage to the trophy wife played by pop star Mitsou in The Barbarian Invasions.)

Days of Darkness is arguably Arcand's most depressing film. Yet it's also one of his greatest and, in a strange way, his most uplifting.

He truly understands the tangles of the human condition. We can all smile at the brutal honesty of a civil servant who stands up and shouts what we all suspect about governments: "We have no answers for you! Your lives are too complicated!"

Denys Arcand has always seemed to be a hit and miss director, and lately just can’t seem to make two good movies in a row. After the Academy Award winning “Barbarian Invasions”, Arcand has followed up with another intellectual comedy, but without a solid narrative focus, which results in a film as lost as it’s main character.

The film opens on a slightly annoying serenade by singer Rufus Wainwright. He's seducing a woman (Diane Kruger) with a sultry (and very winy) song. This is one of many dream sequences we’ll see coming from Jean-Marc Leblanc – a hapless civil servant living in a Montreal suburb. Jean-Marc is married to Sylvie, a career-minded real estate agent who prefers the company of her blackberry to Jean-Marc and his two daughters have just hit the age where they don’t want anything to do with him. So Jean-Marc retreats into a series of fantasy lives and relationships. He has three fantasy girlfriends – Diane Kruger, who plays, I think, Diane Kruger, or is it Veronica? (i forget), his lesbian co-worker, and a TV journalist.

As Jean-Marc goes about his days at his loathsome Government desk job listening to complaints from distressed citizens his mind wanders playing out his idealized life. Jean-Marc aspires to be a famous writer and a sex God desired by all women. But when he realizes he can’t live in his fantasies, Jean-Marc's only respite is to leave his home and retreat to his family cottage, which recalls the last joyous period in his life.

Arcand is on fire in the first third of the film. He sets up a future world we’ve never seen before. Arcand portrays a near future of Montreal as a world close to apocalyptic crumble, either from the paranoid-inducing viruses which rage in the air, or under the crush of the enlarging bureaucratic government. Canadians, and Montrealers in particular, will catch several inside jokes, specifically that white elephant of a building, the Olympic Stadium, which in the film is used as office space for the expanding Quebec Civil Service. Arcand crafts some wonderfully hilarious banter among Jean-Marc’s co-workers, his family and his fantasy family - politically astute and satirically scathing.

Unfortunately this inspired story relaxes and peters out once we realize Arcand has nothing further to say about saccharine middle class life than we’ve seen in other similar films - ie. "American Beauty" or "Little Children". The second act is a series of lengthy fantasies which lead nowhere and only extend the running time. Specifically the Medieval jousting sequence is drawn out way beyond the other sequences, and at the end we’re left with nothing to push the story forward.

Arcand’s films always provoke conversation and “Days of Darkness” will do exactly that, but for the wrong reasons. You’ll ask yourself what went wrong with this clever near-future fantasy intellectual dissertation and what exactly is his point?

Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness have arrived, and not just as a film title.

The celebrated Montreal filmmaker is a multiple Genie, Jutra and Cannes awards winner and a four-time Oscar nominee, winning one.

But Arcand's latest opus is a disappointment for those of us who lionize him as one of Canada's greats. The new film is no match for The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal and The Barbarian Invasions.

Days of Darkness (L'Age des Tenebres) is set entirely in a near-future Quebec and shot primarily in French (with English subtitles).

Arcand's dystopian yet occasionally humourous drama officially closed Cannes in May. It then played the Toronto filmfest in September in a tightened version with some of the messiest scenes shortened.

There are qualities here, vestiges of Arcand's wit and wisdom, plus glimpses of his ability to combine the sacred and the profane of Quebec society.

Days of Darkness is charming at times and provocative in other passages. Picking up vaguely where Barbarian Invasions left off, it is savagely satirical about Quebec .

This is a society that has become dysfunctional, a nightmarish echo of George Orwell's 1984. With Les Expos banished to Washington, the vast expanses of the Olympic Stadium now house government agencies that treat the homeless, the helpless, the weak and the vanquished with cruel indifference and bureaucratic bungling.

Smoking is a heinous crime. Words are banished from the vocabulary. Montreal traffic is horrendous. Crime is spreading. Medical care is chaotic. Plagues run rampant. Orwell's "Big Brother" may be watching, but he is a Big Idiot.

All that is fascinating, although presented without subtlety. But there are also long sections, especially the Renaissance Fair silliness, that are bewildering or ridiculous. The metaphoric return of the "Dark Ages" of medieval European civilization is so clumsy that the second act is a catastrophe.

In the third act, the film becomes a bucolic reverie that reinforces traditional rural values. Like peeling apples or putting up preserves.

This uneven storytelling, abrupt shifts of tone and the naive resolution of the conflict, doom the film.

At its core, the story is about a guileless government functionary (Marc Labreche). He hates his job in his cubicle at the Big "O", where he half-listens to clients begging for help and then dismisses them with barely a whisper of sympathy.

Among the hardship cases is politicized actor Pierre Curzi. Arcand, who wrote as well as directed, is making contemporary statements about his city and province.

Labreche, as our pathetic hero, hates his real estate broker wife (the hilarious Sylvie Leonard). She denies him sex. His kids ignore him. He anguishes over his dying mother.

Labreche escapes boredom through sexualized dreams that we see realized on screen. He fantasizes about a movie star (Diane Kruger) who adores him and provides the glamour and status he lacks.

Other phantom lovers range from a lesbian co-worker willing to cross over for him alone, to his female boss, a frigid bitch at work but a willing S&M slave in fantasyland.

The film lurches from these selfish dreams to harsh reality until the medieval times arrive, via a speed-dating liaison. Labreche hooks up with a Renaissance-obsessed nut case (Macha Grenon) who inspires our sex-starved hero to joust for her hand and body.

The dream-reality balance is thrown out of whack. Arcand loses his grip, never to get it back.

This is not the fault of the actors -- Labreche is excellent as the Everyman and the entire ensemble, which also includes Rufus Wainwright as a golden-voiced, operatic prince of fantasy, is good. So is Guy Dufaux's luminous cinematography.

Yet none of these qualities can overcome Arcand's fractured vision and the haphazard execution.

Days of Darkness, Denys Arcand's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Barbarian Invasions, isn't as smooth as that film -- but it's as bizarre and inventive a movie as you could ask for. Playing out of competition at Cannes, Days of Darkness is a perverse and busy mix of American Beauty, Brazil, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and many other influence that manages to include blunt drama, razor-sharp social commentary, broad comedy, sexual frankness and sweeping musical numbers. It's like that slightly lumpy knit sweater at the craft fair: it may not be machine-manufactured perfect, but you can tell just by looking at it that it was made by a human being.

Played by popular Quebecois comedian Marc Labrèche, Jean-Marc LeBlanc (I don't think the surname's a coincidence) is a 44-year-old bureaucrat, living a soulless life in a post-modern version of Quebec, struggling with a dead marriage, distracted kids, a mind-numbing job and all the discontents of life. The radio blares news of war and pestilence; when the kids are dropped off at school, they take off their Ipods, get out of the car and put on facemasks. Jean-Marc then goes off to work at a gigantic, inhuman, crumbling structure (it's actually Montreal's infamous Olympic stadium, a nice in-joke for Canadians) to aid -- or, rather, not aid -- Quebecois citizens in negotiating a labyrinthine bureaucracy that hinders more than it helps. Jean-Marc's wife (Sylvie Léonard) is obsessed with her work ("I'm the third-best suburban realtor in Canada!"); his mother dying slowly, falling into Alzheimer's.

We don't open with any of this, though; we open with Jean-Marc's fantasy life -- full of operatic sequences (featuring Rufus Wainright and Diane Kruger) and sexual reveries -- and we soon realize that Jean-Marc's fantasy life is just as unsatisfying as his real one. His sex fantasies are pretty rote, even to him; his dreamgirls can't help but comment ironically on his own lack of imagination, how his libido's been shaped and confined by a thousand movies. (As he fantasizes about being with Kruger in the shower, she looks over her shoulder and comments: "The shower's a classicl you can see my bum, and a little of my breast - perfect for the American censors.") Jean-Marc can't imagine how he could change his life -- leave his wife? Quit his job? He can't make a decision. And soon, other people make decisions for him.

Days of Darkness is a little inside -- full of references to Quebecois culture and politics -- but it'll also work for anyone who's ever waited in line at the DMV, or gone blind from reading the small print on their taxes. Labrèche is a deadpan sad-sack in the film, but he's also got a wicked wit that shines through, like when he's brought before the language board at his work for using a casual-yet-charged phrase in conversation. He's informed that "Negro was made a non-word in 1999, along with Negress and Midget; preferred phrases are of equatorial origin and little person." His reply -- clever and sharp-- leaps out like a fencer's lunge.

When his marriage implodes, Jean-marc tries speed dating -- winding up with a woman (Macha Grenon) whose obsession with all things medieval is a bit disquieting ("Your décor's interesting. ..." "It's all from Lord of the Rings. ...") and leads to Jean-Marc reluctantly trapped at a Medieval Faire-style event. This section of the story is a bit uneven -- the slapstick feel is a jump from the urban-surrealist dry wit of the rest of the film -- but it also helps Jean-Marc come to a decision about his own fantasy life, leading to his convening a braintrust of all his sexualized fantasy figures -- the actress (Kruger), the reporter, his boss at work, his lesbian co-worker -- to come to terms with living instead of dreaming, and even that small victory comes with a reminder that all things fade. Days of Darkness isn't as good as Jesus of Montreal or The Barbarian Invasions, but even as a smaller film its made with a bold, broad, big intelligence that most films never attempt to reach for.

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