Born Deschambault (between Quebec City and Trois Rivieres)
June 25, 1941
Perhaps the first Canadian film-maker to achieve true celebrity status, not just in English and French Canada but around the world in the wake of Declin de l’empire Americain, Denys Arcand still gets a rush out of getting a last-minute reservation at his favorite restaurant.
“As a film-maker you become semi-famous for six months — every four years. I can’t say I don’t like that. I’m not addicted to fame or anything, but it’s nice to think people are listening when you open your mouth to say something,” said Arcand after the release of Stardom, his 2000 film that centred around a young female hockey player from rural Ontario who becomes a supermodel quite by accident.
“I’ve been a celebrity since 1986, after Declin. That was my first taste of stardom. Before that, no one asked me what I thought of anything. Fame gives you this sense of recognition and in this day and age, when you go to the big market to buy a steak instead of the neighbourhood butcher, it makes a difference when people know who you are. No one knows anyone anymore. There is no sense of community or belonging. They can’t say, ‘hello,Denys!’ when you walk in unless — of course — you are famous. When you are famous, the world becomes your extended family.”
Before Arcand found a global sense of community, he struggled with identity issues. The eldest of four kids, Arcand grew up in a strict Catholic household. His mother wanted to be a Carmelite nun and his father was a St. Laurent river pilot in Deschambault. With the hopes of making a better life for his family and exposing his children to a better education, Arcand’s father moved the family to Montreal in 1954.
The move to the city brought Arcand closer to the city’s sprawling movie palaces, but movies were frowned upon by Arcand’s father who saw them as a pastime for the poor as a result of watching able-bodied men linger in the half-light of movie houses during the Depression. Arcand was nonetheless transfixed by the movies, preferring them to books. His first exposure to flickering shadows back in Deschambault, where his uncle owned a 16mm projector and would regularly rent concert films, and play them for the neighbourhood.
In Montreal, however, the young Arcand was being groomed for a place of social importance. He attended a prestigious Jesuit college and earned his Masters in History from the Universite de Montreal. History, he said, was the only subject that interested him, and the only thing he felt he could stick with long enough to earn his graduate degree and please his parents. While at school, his interest in theatre and film flourished prompting Arcand to try his hand at producing a short film Seul ou avec d’autres (Alone or With Others) in 1962. The National Film Board offered equipment and a few key personnel to make the film happen, and Arcand soon made the acquaintance of Michel Brault and Claude Jutra.
“I was completely seduced by the lifestyle,” he said. In Brault and Jutra, Arcand saw two young, politicized and worldly men who appeared to be riding the wave of the future. He wanted to be just like them. Brault even encouraged the young Arcand to try his hand at writing a script, which he did. It was called Entre la mer et l’eau douce, and years later when Brault actually made it featured Genevieve Bujold in her first movie as it told the story of a folk singer who moves to Montreal looking for his big break, but finds nothing but heart-ache. Arcand was looking for a big break himself, and after graduating with his MA in history, he applied to the National Film Board, Societe Radio-Canada (CBC) and La Presse (the major Montreal daily newspaper). The only response came from the NFB, who saw the young history major as the right person to help research a series of films on the history of Canada aimed for exhibition at Expo 67. There was only one problem: Arcand didn’t agree with the version of history he was being told to document. He remembers endless rewrites, but he stuck with the film board long enough to complete a few short films on “national parks and how to play volleyball.”
In 1966, Arcand was feeling the yoke of institutionalism and left the NFB for the private sector to make commercials. In 1967, he took a job at the Expo 67, the Canadian centennial celebration and World’s Fair. Arcand was suddenly part of an increasingly large new bourgeoisie. At 27, he appeared to have all the creature comforts: a nice sports car, a house and a chunk of significant cash in the bank. Around this time, Arcand married Denise Robert — who would later become his chief production partner and an established, respected producer in her own right. Everything should have been going great, but Arcand felt he was hitting a creative wall. He was in the scene and checking out parties, but he wasn’t thinking. He wasn’t writing. He wasn’t challenging himself, or his potential, so he dropped off the radar. He lived at home for a year, vowing never to return to film unless it was for a project he truly cared about — a film with real meaning.
In 1969, he went back to the NFB, where he reconnected with Jutra and Brault in the famed cafeteria, and began work on a project about disenfranchised textile workers in Quebec. The film, On est au coton, was an expose of third-world working conditions and labour exploitation at the hands of a morally bankrupt (American) establishment. The film was making waves — too many, in fact, to release on schedule at the height of the October Crisis in 1970. The reel was shelved because it was too “biased.” Dejected and disheartened once again, Arcand refused to give in and decided to make a film about the 1970 provincial election that saw Liberal Robert Bourassa elected Premier of Quebec. The film, Duplessis et apres, was hardly an objective news account of the campaign. It was full of creative associative techniques, such as showing a picture of Bourassa speaking — while the audio track featured a classic, patronizing speech from Duplessis to his flock. Arcand was making a political point, and it was that little had changed in the province despite the much-ballyhoo’ed Quiet Revolution under Jean Lesage. The church’s influence had declined in the preceding decade, but the people were still patronized by authority — and leaders were inevitably more concerned with their own legacy than improving the lives of their citizens. Arcand was isolating a cycle of radicalism, followed by conservatism, and back again. Decidedly anti-establishment and a little to skeptical of authority, Duplessis et apres was shelved as well, prompting Arcand to take his leave of the NFB for a second time.
Disenchanted with institutionalism once again, Arcand made his first “commercial” movie in 1972. It was called Une Maudite Galette, an irony-laced thriller about a working-class couple who decide to murder a rich uncle and take off with the loot. Of course, things go wrong: the husband is shot dead during the robbery, and the wife takes off with a lodger who takes the cash and brings it to his parents. The wife reappears, prompting the two to kill each other. Only the parents are left alive, and they take the cash and the car to Florida. The message is ambiguous at best, cynical at worst — much like the endless crop of modern Tarantino redux where a sense of nihilism is mistaken for substance. For Arcand, at least, the cynicism seemed to be well-founded, and it fired his creative furnace for another feature about the corruption of ideals and the seductive power of wealth.
Rejeanne Padovani was made for $135,000 and premiered at Cannes in 1973, where Arcand was referred to as a “beautiful and strong fur trapper” by the French. The story of a dinner party set against a backdrop of road construction and political tenders, the film has been compared to Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion and Rules of the Game for its long takes and deep focus, not to mention class-war subtext. In Rejeanne Padovani, the title character is the exiled ex-wife of a gang boss and highway contractor who returns home during a dinner party. Her ex is entertaining a bunch of politicians who were influential in giving Padovani the contract for building the Ville-Marie expressway while the maids and servants have their own, alternative party unfolding in the basement. When Rejeanne returns to reclaim her children after taking off with the head of a rival, Jewish, cartel, she is “rubbed out” and later, quite literally, “paved over.” Once again, exile, alienation and fractured families take the foreground as overt discussions about the volatile political situation in Quebec are left to simmer as subtext.
In 1975, Arcand returned to familiar socialist ground for Gina, the story of a stripper who is carted off to a textile town by her gangland bosses. There, she runs into a documentary crew who is there to shoot the “real struggle” of the women in the textile factory — particularly Dolores, a textile worker who does her best to tell the crew what they want to hear, namely exploitation stories about strikes and being fired on by the cops. Gina, the stripper, has sympathy for the documentary crew as well, and when she takes their side at the bar, she ends up on the bad side of the local snowmobile gang, who feel so threatened by her strength, they have to gang-rape her to get even (while Oh Canada can be heard in the background, as part of the network TV sign-off) . More violence follows as her biker bosses take revenge. All this happens underneath the lazy eyes of the documentary crew who leave Louiseville behind, having changed nothing. Here, Arcand acknowledges the separation between the shooter and the subject, showing us that even a “documentary” version of the truth is slanted, if not altogether deaf and blind as a result of institutional thinking. In short, there is no real hero in Arcand’s early films — there are only failed attempts. Nobody, it seems, can change the world through honourable means.
Arcand’s next project was a documentary about the 1980 referendum, Le confort et indifference, which he made with the NFB. Once again, Arcand’s decidely anti-establishment stance was palpable and the film was considered scandalous because it compared Trudeau’s federalist forces to Machiavelli. The sovereignists disliked the film because it mocked the people for being taken in, and the federalists didn’t like it because it made them out to be shrewd, cold-hearted tyrants. Perhaps what many considered most offensive about Le confort et indifference was the film’s reluctance to make any blatant political statement at all when so many people were desperate for artistic rallying points. Art had to be political if it was to have merit, and for a while, Arcand was perceived as being a softening separatist — a traitor to the cause — because his eye on Quebec politics was becoming increasingly jaundiced. It was a sad, pathetic joke that was hurting everyone.
Arcand returned to fiction, and made a cheesy feature based on the ever-popular Plouffe family — Le Crime d’Ovide Plouffe. Apparently resucitated by the emptiness of it all, Arcand returned to the typewriter to write the script for Le Declin de l’empire Americain.
Picking up the same multiple personality story as John Sayles’ Return of the Seacaucus Seven and Lawrence Kasdan’s Big Chill, Arcand’s Decline brought a uniquely “Canadian” spin to a tale of adults sifting through memory and experience in an attempt to find meaning. All the characters (four men, four women) are well-educated intellectuals who are so smart, they have lost touch with the gritty reality of life — only to have it hit them in the face. Everything looks perfect, but beneath the surface, everything’s fucked. They make beautiful food, but take no pleasure in eating it. They talk about sex, but find no pleasure having it. They are smart and rich, but lack common sense and life fulfillment. Once again, Arcand tells us that appearances are deceiving — and those who seem to have it all together are probably the biggest screw-ups of all. Intellectually superior and far more sarcastic than other films in a similar vein, Declin de l’empire Americain became the first international Canadian cinematic success story. Not only did it win the Fipresci prise, the Critics’ Prize at Cannes and an arm-load of Genies, but it was nominated for a best foreign picture Academy Award, making Arcand a household name overnight.
“After Declin, I realized fame is a big game,” said Arcand. “That’s why I had this idea of a young girl sort of stranded in the headlights of fame. She doesn’t quite know how to play it yet, and that’s what Stardom is all about: the game. It’s a sick game, but it can be quite fun if you like to play…. and I like to play. I don’t take it seriously, but a lot of people do and that’s when it can turn dangerous and destructive.”
Arcand says he likes to make movies that have a social message, but by the same token, he doesn’t like films that lecture to the audience, which is why he chooses to leave his films relatively open-ended.
In his next film, Jesus of Montreal, Arcand took the story of Christ and transposed it to modern-day Montreal, where a group of actors are putting on a passion play on Mount Royal. Lothaire Bluteau plays the sad-eyed Jesus, who is committed to putting on a creative and controversial version of the stages of the cross. But just as the creative juices get going, the establishment forces of the church — which we see to be hypocritical because even the priest is sleeping with one of the actresses — take control and shut the play down. Creativity is the martyr and corporate greed and institutional thinking are the tyrants. Arcand said at the time he believed “the Catholic heirarchy is completely opposed to Christ’s purest teachings.”
Jesus of Montreal was another domestic and international success, and netted Arcand another foreign language Oscar nomination. From there, he decided to try his hand at English-language film and adapted Brad Fraser’s play, Love and Human Remains, to the screen. A story of urban angst and identity crises, the multi-layered film centres on a gay waiter and his feelings of insecurity. Set against a backdrop of a city wrapped up in paranoia because a serial murderer on the loose, Love and Human Remains is an edgy and ambiguous story where sex is the sole means of inter-personal communication, and even that has been turned into a dark force as a result of the outsider — the “other” — the faceless serial killer who thrives in these anonymous urban landscapes.
Love & Human Remains was a moderate success, but it opened Arcand to a barrage of criticism from PQ faithful who saw his language shift a betrayal to the movement. Arcand took time off to recharge his batteries and returned with another English-language (in fact, multi-lingual) effort, Stardom.
“If you look at Stardom or Jesus of Montreal, you can see a message, but it’s not the kind that tells you how to live your life. Maybe they are telling you to be careful about not making the same mistake — or not taking things too seriously. Look at our culture that reveres celebrities like religious icons. Look at Lady Di — do you know who she really was? No. But you feel like you know her. This is the lie of the camera, and the lie of celebrity. You never find any truth or deeper meaning, you just get the picture. And for many people, this is enough. In Stardom, I simply try to make people conscious of the lens — conscious that they are watching through someone else.. in this case, they are watching through Robert (Robert Lepage).”
The resulting tension between the “real person” and the constructed, mediated image is a recurring theme in Arcand’s work, but nowhere is it more blatant than Stardom. Oddly enough, it wasn’t a theme that even Arcand realized consciously until he started conceptualizing the film.
“I knew I couldn’t tell this story as a classic narrative because the whole point of the movie is to show you how little you know about a person — not how much. People say the movie is unsatisfying because you don’t find out enough about this woman, this model. But she is a mannequin — no one around her wants her for anything but the way she looks. You never hear her say anything of importance. You don’t even know what she is feeling — that’s why there are so many holes in the story. The camera can’t cover the gaps… and this would be considered contrary to the rules of screenwriting and film-making, where the goal is to always be as seamless as possible — to bring you from one scene to the next without any bump. In Stardom, it was my goal to make as many bumps as possible.”
Ask Arcand if he feels there are any similarities between his work and that of English-Canadian film-makers, with specific regard to structure and the recurring idea of “gaps” in the webbing of the film, and he sits back to reflect. “You know, I never even thought about it much, but I guess there could be something to it. There might be something we share in our constant resistance to American genre film. But I’m too close to see what I do objectively. I’m the film-maker, you are the critic. If you can explore this gap idea further, bolster it a little, you will have a book I’d be interested in reading.”
— Katherine Monk
Filmography: Seul ou avec autres (1962), Samuel de Champlain: Quebec 1603 (short, 1964), Champlain (short, 1964), Les montrealistes (short, 1965), La route de l’Ouest (1965), Volleyball (short, 1966), Parcs atlantiques (short, 1967), La maudite galette, (1972), Quebec: Duplessis et après (1972), Rejeanne Padovani (1973), Gina (1975), Le Crime d’Ovide Plouffe (1984), Le Declin de l’empire americain (1986), Un Zoo la nuit, actor (1987), Jesus de Montreal (1989), Montreal vu par… (segment, 1991), Love & Human Remains (1993), Joyeux Calvaire (1996), Stardom (2000), Les Invasions Barbares (2003), Days of Darkness (2007), Le regne de la beauté (2014).