SPECIAL REPORT

Savage thrusts from a satirist’s blade

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1986
SPECIAL REPORT

Savage thrusts from a satirist’s blade

Brian D. Johnson September 15 1986

Savage thrusts from a satirist’s blade

SPECIAL REPORT

Hollywood studio bosses were noticeably absent last May when Montreal director Denys Arcand’s Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) debuted to enthusiastic reviews at the Cannes film festival. Fearful of European terrorism, many Americans had stayed home. But reports of Arcand’s film spread, and last month he flew to Los Angeles to discuss the possibility of directing an American remake of Decline with Hollywood stars. It was Arcand’s first visit to Los Angeles, and he soon found himself attending exclusive tennis parties in the backyards of Beverly Hills. Said the director: “I’m a very good tennis player, and that is a major social asset in L.A.” Suddenly Arcand, who has spent much of his film-making career dissecting the decadence of the wealthy and powerful, was scoring points in the heart of the American film empire.

Carved: Arcand, 45, is one of Canada’s most provocative and versatile directors. Even before scoring a hit with Decline, he had carved out an international reputation with his highly distinctive style of film-making. His 1970 documentary, On est au coton (We work in Cotton), was an aggressive exposé of the Quebec textile industry: its title is a pun on a Quebec expression meaning “We’re fed up.” The movie caused so much controversy that the National Film Board (NFB) banned it for five years. Arcand’s 1973 dramatic feature, Réjeanne Padovani, a gothic tale of corruption among Montreal politicians and mafia leaders, was a hit at film festivals in New York, London, Cannes and Beirut. More recently he extended his reach to Englishlanguage television by directing three episodes of the CBC’s popular 1982 mini-series Empire, Inc. But Decline marks a breakthrough for Arcand, and for Quebec cinema as a whole. Robert Daudelin, Quebec’s leading film archivist, said: “It’s no accident that the breakthrough happened with Arcand. He has always had an original approach to fiction, and eventually it was bound to reach a broader audience.”

Most of Arcand’s previous films have been far less acces-

sible than Decline. Focusing on exotic extremes of social conflict in Quebec, they portrayed a harsh and unforgiving world of gangsters, politicians, strippers and strikers. Piers Handling, who programs Canadian films for Toronto’s Festival of Festivals, said Arcand “is like a Jonathan Swift in his satire of Quebec society. He has an incredibly acerbic, corrosive attitude.” But with Decline, Arcan d avoids specific Quebec references. His characters are Frenchspeaking intellectuals entranced by American culture. And they spend most of the film talking about sex, a subject that readily transcends national boundaries.

Virgin: Slicing into a dinner of blood sausage during a recent interview in a Montreal restaurant, Arcand spoke enthusiastically about the success of Decline. Making a film that is verbally rather than visually explicit is “an original approach,” he said. “The eye has seen everything, but the ear is virgin.” For all that, Arcand appears more amused than excited about the prospect of directing a Decline remake for Americans who are unwilling to read subtitles. “It would be fun to make a Hollywood movie,” he said. “And I’m curious to see what happens with the negotiations. But I’m not that eager to do it.” Instead, he is impatient to resume writing the script for his next film, a project that may dispel suspicions that he is about to blunt his satirical edge for commercial gain. Titled Jesus of Montreal, it is the story of an out-of-work actor who supports himself by playing Jesus in local religious pageants. Arcand developed the idea after auditioning an actor who apologized for having a beard because he was moonlighting as Jesus in such pageants—arcane throwbacks to an era when Quebec culture was heavily influenced by Roman Catholicism.

Strict: Like the rest of his generation, Arcand was born in a society dominated by the church. The eldest of four children, he grew up in the village of Deschambault near Quebec City. When Denys was 10, his parents moved to Montreal, where they enrolled him in a Jesuit school. Under the Jesuits’ strict tutelage, he developed his racquet

skills playing lacrosse and learned to act onstage in the classical plays of the 17th-century French playwright Molière.

Arcand obtained an MA in history at the University of Montreal, where he first encountered the nationalism of Quebec’s Quiet Revolution and currents of European Marxism. In 1963 the graduate historian won a job at the NFB, where he helped prepare a documentary history of Canada for the 1967 Centennial. He directed five shorts at the NFB before spending a year and a half making his first featurelength film, On est au coton, as a freelance project which the NFB funded. The NFB’s decision to prevent the release of the film, he said, “was a blessing in disguise. Overnight, students were churning out copies on video. Suddenly an obscure documentary film-maker was the talk of the town.”

But before the controversy erupted, Arcand already had another NFB feature documentary under way, Quebec: Duplessis et après.. . (Quebec: Duplessis and After... ). A satirical look at the 1970 Quebec election campaign, it too

was highly controversial: the director courted outrage by intercutting speeches by René Lévesque with clips of Quebec’s corrupt former premier Maurice Duplessis to suggest similarities between the two. Arcand soon followed with his first dramatic feature, a nihilistic story of greed and violence titled La Maudite Galette (The Damned Loot). Although it failed at the box office, it won critical favor at Cannes in 1972.

Vulgarity: Arcand made a stronger impact the next year with Rêjeanne Padovani, his deadpan drama about grace and vulgarity in high society. The inspiration for the film came from strangely disparate sources. Arcand borrowed the basic plot from a historical account of the Roman emperor Claudius’s murder of his wife. The corruption of Quebec politics provided the setting: while filming Québec: Duplessis et après..., Arcand had become fascinated with a Union Nationale candidate who had Mafia ties. Rêjeanne

Padovani is about the unfaithful wife of a Montreal mobster. He murders her after a long party with some politicians who are to open a new auto route the next day. The final scenes have an operatic sweep: the camera pans across the ruins of wrecked houses along the auto route’s path, while a concrete mixer buries the body of the mobster’s wife under the new roadway. It is a vision of unredeemed morbidity.

In 1974 Arcand turned his attention to the Quebec working class with Gina, the story of a stripper who is raped by a gang of snowmobilers. A subplot, adapted from Arcand’s own experience, concerns a group of film-makers who get to know the stripper while making a documentary about textile workers. The film plays heavily on the contrast between industrial and sexual exploitation.

Guts: Gina was Arcand’s last original film drama until Decline 12 years later. Financing problems forced him to seek more commercial projects. He moved into television, writing the script for the French CBC’s hit mini-series Duplessis in 1976 and directing Empire, Inc. episodes for

the English CBC. He also directed his younger brother, actor Gabriel Arcand, in 1983’s Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe, a successful sequel to Gilles Carle’s film Les Plouffe. Recalling that venture, the director said, “It’s not that I’m ashamed of it, but I wasn’t putting my guts on the table.”

In that same period, Arcand made one movie that did bear his satirical signature: Le Confort et l'indifférence (Comfort and Indifference), a scathing documentary parodying both sides of Quebéc’s 1982 referendum on independence. The film expressed Arcand’s, and Quebec’s, mounting disillusionment with politics. Damning: Decline is s Arcand’s most personal o movie, based on his own 2 experiences and those of close friends. “For a change, I wanted to do a film about people that I really know,” he said. The result is at once a damning and endearing portrait of adults sorting out abandoned ideals and crumbling relationships. Arcand, who is separated after a 14-year childless marriage, said he has tried to portray a generation “that has made individual happiness a higher priority than collective sacrifice. But I’m not making any moral judgments.”

Arcand’s career mirrors Quebec’s cultural evolution over the past two decades. His focus has shifted from the national to the personal, from political issues of oppression to sexual traumas of affluence. He appears to relish the paradox of his position. Essentially, he has made a sex film about intellectuals—and an intellectual film about sex. Finally, he has found a way of selling to the American empire seductive visions of its own decline.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON