(b. June 25, 1941 Deschambault, Quebec)
Denys Arcand is one of the preeminent talents to have emerged in Quebec in the 1960s and is now one of Canada’s star directors. Indeed, he is unquestionably Quebec’s most internationally celebrated filmmaker.
Before the huge success of his breakthrough film, Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986), Arcand had been labelled an unbankable troublemaker, the kind of filmmaker who made politically explosive documentaries such as On est au coton (1976). His early features, especially La maudite galette (1971) and Réjeanne Padovani (1972), offered radically new formal extensions in fiction filmmaking, and his documentaries Quebec: Duplessis et après... (1972), On est au coton and Le confort et l'indifférence (1982) marked major developments in direct cinema and film rhetoric.
Arcand’s films often portray a world so irredeemably corrupt that he has been accused of being a cynic and a nihilist, yet his films consistently explore and demystify our social and political processes, conveying inherent values with wit and insight. He once told Cinema Canada “I can’t bear people who don’t want to see what appears to me to be reality. I don’t know why. I’ve always been that way... it seems to me that the first attribute of humanity is intelligence.”
Arcand grew up in a riverside village and eventually moved to Montreal, where he attended a Jesuit school and later studied history at the Université de Montréal. He worked on Parti pris and made his first film Seul ou avec d'autres (1962) in collaboration with Denis Héroux, Stéphane Venne, Michel Brault and students at the university. He joined the National Film Board in 1963 and made several documentaries about Quebec historical figures (and co-wrote Michel Brault’s first fiction feature, Entre la mer et l’eau douce, 1967) before directing the feature length On est au coton, a film about Quebec textile workers that provoked an internal crisis at the NFB. The Film Board saw it as a biased portrayal of the events it recounted and they refused to release it. Although copies of the film were circulated clandestinely, the ban lasted six years. Many Quebecois filmmakers sided with Arcand and felt that hostility toward separatism in particular and the Québécois in general were behind the NFB’s opposition to the work.
When Arcand turned to fiction, his work began to modulate outrage with the amused disdain of a sophisticated observer and satirist. In Réjeanne Padovani, a sleazy construction mogul has his unfaithful wife murdered during a party and entombs her under the asphalt of a newly completed highway. Arcand expresses shock at the depravity of his characters, but he is quite aware of the comedy they provide.
By the time he directed Le déclin de l’empire américain — which received the International Film Critics’ Award at Cannes, nine Genies and an Academy Award® nomination, and remains one of the most profitable Canadian movies ever made — Arcand admitted that he felt both affection for and amused by his self-deceptive, philandering characters. In fact, his biting humour can turn quickly into passionate intensity. Le decline focused on a group of intellectuals preparing for a dinner party. As the men make dinner, the women work out at a gym. Inevitably, the conversation turns to sex, with happily married Rémy boasting of his extra-marital exploits.
Jésus de Montréal, released in 1989, is perhaps Arcand’s richest, most rewarding work. In the film, he orchestrates perfectly timed tonal shifts between reverence and irreverence, detached irony and dark tragedy. A satire on religion, faith and the lack thereof, the film stars Lothaire Bluteau as an actor planning a passion play and searching for collaborators.
In Le déclin de l’empire américain and Jésus de Montréal, Arcand mastered the unobtrusive visual style and rapid pacing that he admires in classic American moviemaking. No matter how bizarre the content, his approach to filmmaking is straightforward, understated and laconic. In this, Arcand resembles the Spanish master Luis Buñuel, another cool, witty minimalist and satirist.
In 1993 Arcand directed his first English-language feature, Love and Human Remains, based on Brad Fraser’s widely-praised play, “Unidentified Human Remains and the True Nature of Love”. (Fraser adapted his play for the screen.) Focusing on a group of young people in a city plagued by a serial killer, the film echoes themes in Le déclin de l’empire américain, but it did not receive the critical acclaim of that film or of Jésus de Montréal. In 1999, Arcand made 15 moments, a reflection on the media and the star/celebrity machine that follows the rise and fall of fashion supermodel Tina Menzhal. Stardom, released in 2000, is the complete version of 15 moments. In 1999, George Dufaux made a documentary about Arcand called De l’art et la manière chez Denys Arcand, a behind-the-scenes look at Arcand's moviemaking.
In 2003 Arcand released a sequel to Le déclin de l’empire américain entitled Les invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions). The film looks at the same group of characters almost twenty years later, when regrets and misgivings about their behaviour and beliefs are more common than the hypocritical self-satisfaction evident in the earlier movie. In particular, the principals are concerned with preserving, maintaining or reviving family connections — especially between generations. Many have argued that Les invasions is more emotionally direct and less cerebral than it predecessor, though it’s far from being light weight. Where its predecessor concentrated on the group, Les invasions focuses primarily on Rémy Girard’s salacious, cherubic philanderer Rémy, who is facing his own mortality. Remy’s friends, including his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), come to bid him farewell. Louise pleads with their son, wealthy financier Sebastien (Stéphane Rousseau), to come as well, and he reluctantly obliges despite his contempt for his father (who essentially abandoned him after he and Louise broke up) and his left wing politics. A friend’s daughter, Natalie (Marie-Josée Croze) also shows up, harboring demons of her own.
The film had a rapturous reception upon its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival (where it won prizes for best screenplay and Croze’s performance) and received the best notices of any Arcand film since Jésus de Montréal. It did, however, have its detractors, including some who argued that Arcand shared some of the right wing views of his characters, especially when it came to the film’s depiction of the Canadian health care system. The film went on to win the Academy Award for best foreign language Film (as well as being nominated for best screenplay), as well as three Césars, six Genies, five Jutras and the Toronto-City Award for best Canadian feature film at the Toronto International Film Festival. In a 2004 poll of critics and programmers conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival, the film was named one of the best Canadian films of all time alongside Jésus de Montréal and Le déclin de l’empire américain, giving Arcand three films on the list. (The links between the two films are discussed by scholar André Loiselle in a monograph entitled Denys Arcand’s Le déclin de l’empire américain and Les invasions barbares.)
Arcand’s next film, L’âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness, 2007), was the third installment in a loose trilogy which includes Le déclin de l’empire américain and Jésus de Montréal. L’âge des ténèbres tells the tale of a Walter Mitty-like bureaucrat (played by actor and popular talk show host Marc Labrèche). Set in the near future when bureaucracy has run amok, smokers are hounded and paranoia and indifference dominate, the film follows its angry hero as he deals with a seemingly endless string of petty and ludicrous frustrations by taking refuge in violent and jejune fantasies. He is hardly an anomaly, though. One of his misadventures involves him following a woman (Macha Grenon) to a compound where role-players pretend to be Medieval knights and ladies. (Arcand has said that shooting in Montreal’s crumbling, now rarely used Olympic Stadium was one of the reasons the film was bleaker than the other installments.) The film concludes with Arcand’s hero following in the footsteps of those before him and seeking renewal in the countryside. Many of Arcand’s films since Love and Human Remains, or more accurately since the 1995 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, have presented Québécois society as adrift. L’âge des ténèbres was not as well received as its predecessor, perhaps because of its frenetic, farcical style, a departure from the signature style evident in films like Le déclin de l’empire américain, Jésus de Montréal and Les invasions barbares. The film did win one Genie and was named one of Canada’s Top Ten films of the year in the annual list organized by the Toronto International Film Festival.
For longer analyses of Arcand’s work and career in English, see Auteur/Provocateur: The Films of Denys Arcand, a collection of essays edited by André Loiselle and Brian McIllroy (Praeger, 1995), as well as Denys Arcand’s Le déclin de l’empire américain and Les invasions barbares by André Loiselle (Univeristy of Toronto Press, 2008), and Denys Arcand: A Life in Film by Réal La Rochelle (McArthur & Company, 2004).