Alongside David Cronenberg and Atom Egoyan, Denys Arcand is Canada’s best-known film director, a small club for sure but all of them creative forces to be reckoned with in the global film world. Arcand’s post-modern and referential cinema , often sprinkled with wry, savvy sense of humour, which his usually memorable film titles demonstrate (The Decline of the American Empire, the Barbarian Invasions and these two ones reviewed here) is the most political of the three as well as more accessible.
Jésus de Montréal (1989) is one of his best films and ranks alongside Pier Paolo Pasolini The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) as one of the most original revisitations of the Passion of Christ. Winner of the Grand Prix of the Jury atthe 1989 Cannes festival and nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 1990, it focuses on a leftist reading of the gospel to comment on contemporary issues such as commercialism and artistic integrity. The most remarkable aspect of Jesus of Montreal was how Arcand managed to extract relevance from such played-out narrative, one which seemed to have been rendered almost irredeemably kitsch by the likes of Franco Zefirelli.
Lothaire Bluteau plays Marcel, a Nick Cave look-alike avant-garde actor who is a hired by a priest at a Catholic university (Father Leclerc) where the Passion play is annually staged on the grounds of a hillside shrine overlooking the city. Using data from the latest archaeological finds and new translations of the Talmud, he reworks the traditional Stations of the Cross and injects a new lease of life into the staid production. He casts himself as Jesus and finds four other actors to join him — Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), a single mother who was in the previous production and is Leclerc’s mistress; Mireille (Catherine Wilkening), a glamourous TV advert who sees the opportunity as challenge to prove herself; Martin (Remy Girard), who earns a living dubbing voices for a porno film and Rene (Robert Lepage), a rather arrogant actor who at first refuses to join in.
Critics and the public love the modernised play, but Father Leclerc becomes worried that the liberties taken with the story of Jesus may land him in trouble. Meanwhile, Mireille, after having abandoned her boyfriend for the contempt he showed her, is shacking up with Constance and Daniel, with whom she starts an affair. Their romance provides Arcand with the opportunity to show how Daniel literally got under the skin of his character. When Mirelle is humiliated by the producer and director during an audition for a beer commercial, he does a Jesus-in-the-temple routine and, in a fit of rage, smashes all the recording equipment in the room and chases the advertising big hats out of the auditorium. As a consequence, in the middle of the next performance of the Passion play, Daniel is arrested by the police on charges of aggravated assault and vandalism, a real visual coup on the part of Arcand. Released from custody after a hearing, Daniel is propositioned by Richard Cardinal (Yves Jacques), a show business lawyer who offers to make him a superstar. The 1980s yuppie vista of Montreal’s cityscape is offered to him as the prize of a Faustian pact with the devil.
Tension starts to mount and the situation of the actors increasingly mirrors that of Jesus and his disciples, culminating in a heart-breaking finale – Arcand is a sharp emotion stirrer as he proved with The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Of course, he is not saying anything new with this film – it is after all, an update of an old story. However, his elegance and idionsyncrasy save the film from any hint of staleness. His minimalism and straightforward dialogues are always surprising and add new layers of meaning to familiar utterings. Besides, his criticism of institutionalised religion and the emptiness of modern life (celebrity, consumerism, the media, the latter a recurring motif in his films via TV imagery) is always accurate and incisive. Arcand gives his own insights into his film in an interview shot in December 2005 that accompanies the film as an extra.
Jesus of Montreal is accompanied by the simultaneous release of Love and Human Remains (1993), not a vintage Arcand offering, but a curious one that lies low amongst his oeuvre. The film was Arcand’s first English-language film and it’s a hybrid text, a cross between drama, comedy and murder mystery whose uncompromising style echoes Martin Scorceses often neglected After Hours (1985). The story is hinged around David (Thomas Gibson) is a former child TV actor who in his thirties is making a living as a waiter and dreaming of finding a boyfriend. His flatmate Candy (Ruth Marshall) is a book reviewer also in search of love and in her quest halfbakedly succumbs to the approach of a lesbian schoolteacher she meets at the gym (Jerri, played by Joanne Vannicola). David’s best friend is Bernie (Cameron Bancroft) who spends his evenings picking up women for casual sex. Meanwhile, the busboy who works with David, the 17-year-old Kane (Matthew Fergunson) starts to develop a crush for his older friend. To round up the cast is Benita (Mia Kirshner), a dominatrix who specialises in humiliating men. As a background to the crisscrossing of all these characters is a serial killer on the loose, murdering women in the urban night.
The cast gives an excellent performance and keep the focus of this rather pleasantly rambling story. The lines they say are often unpredictable as are the expressions of their feelings – Arcand doesn’t spend time with build-ups, which gives the film a slight absurd, surreal touch. Love and Human Remains is no masterpiece, but it allows Arcand to approach more playfully some of his recurring themes in a rather quirky fashion.
Jesus of Montreal and Love and Human Remains are out now on Arrow Films.
Plus: Tintin et Moi (Documentary, 2005. Dir: Anders Ostergaard. Published by Anchor Bay). – This elegant portrait of Tintin’s creator, Georges Remi (better known as Hergé) is based on a series of conversations with the creator of one of the world’s best-loved comic book characters. This construction turns the documentary into a rather subjective, atmospheric insight into the mind of a man deeply influenced by Catholicism and his moral dilemmas during WWII. Considering how little footage of Hergé himself Ostergaard had to cobble his film together, he did a stupendous job in creating a rich visual tapestry, explained by a somber voice-over of the kind that British TV viewers are rather used to. The final result is rather zen and you get the impression that towards the end of his life Hergé achieved his coveted inner peace.