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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 13, No. 4 December 2007

Denys Arcand: Reflections

by Wah Keung Chan & Lilian I. Liganor / December 16, 2007

Version française...

Denys Arcand’s new film Days of Darkness unfolds with a dream sequence. The main character is singing the lead in an obscure 18th century opera. “That’s me,” admits Arcand. “I think anyone who has sung in the bathroom fantasizes about singing opera.” Naturally, the lead is a tenor, and with his distinctively bass voice, Arcand can never hope to play the role. Injecting something of himself into his storylines is what the 67 year-old filmmaker has always done, and done well.

Opera and music seem to be a recurring theme in Arcand’s life. His mother studied piano and classical guitar at the convent school ran by Carmelite nuns. The oldest of four kids, Arcand grew up in Deschambault, a small village of 800 people situated 40 km north of Quebec City. His father, a river pilot, loved opera and passed his passion on to young Denys. In fact, famed Quebec tenor Raoul Jobin was a childhood friend of the senior Arcand, and was frequently a guest at the family home. “He vocalized in the bathroom,” recalls Arcand, “[his] was a huge voice.”

In 1953, Arcand’s family relocated to Montreal because his father wanted to provide his children with a good education and Arcand notes, “arts then became an important part of my life.” Between the age of 16 and 20, he studied at a Jesuit school next to the church (now the Gesu Theatre) which was then a performance venue, and where he and his friends often snuck in to watch shows. In his youth, Arcand had diverse interests. Aside from being a hockey player, he sang in the choir, was involved in theatre, as well as wrote and made drawings for the college paper. “In sports, I was never the best;
I wouldn’t be on a power play [but] in theatre, acting and writing, I was strangely very good and naturally creative. I remember seeing Twelfth Night [in French] and I was blown away.”

When choosing a career Arcand harbored a desire to write novels or perhaps direct or make films but he realized that few people at that time (1961) could successfully make a living in the arts and he wasn’t even sure if he was “good enough.” He also did not want to disappoint his father. Still uncertain of what career to follow, he entered university and chose to study history because “it interested me intellectually,” and allowed for various career opportunities. After finishing his Master of Arts at the University of Montreal, he was hired soon after by the National Film Board (NFB) to make documentaries on Quebec history for use in schools.

“Nobody knew how to make films before getting in. It was rigorous and good training. For a year, I spent one afternoon each week learning about the camera, developing film and editing. You did your training as you did your first film. You did apprenticeship in an informal way. I went to a lot of other shoots and edits, to observe what choices they made and how they did their mixing. It was an old-time Hollywood studio, with an editing facility and equipment.”

During those early years, success came quickly. Arcand won Best Short Film in the Children’s Category for a 25-minute piece on Samuel Champlain (designed for schools) and more projects followed. After 4 years, he left the NFB to produce images for Expo ‘67 but then found his way back to the NFB as a freelancer. From 1968 to 1970, Arcand worked on his first feature documentary, an angry exposé of Quebec’s textile industry and the exploitation of its workers. For legal and political reasons, the NFB withheld the release of On est au coton and the resulting controversy made Arcand a cause célèbre. “We just printed a number of videos and everyone who was anyone (the media and intellectuals) saw it but the people from the Townships who were in the film couldn’t see it. It didn’t affect me psychologically because I became busy.”

Arcand left the NFB for movies. He acted in Mon œil by Jean-Paul Lefebvre, who then asked him to do a feature. His first, La maudite galette, about a group of killers, was written by Jacques Benoît with some of Arcand’s input. “It was very violent, like a cheap B-movie with intentions about the absurdity of life,” recounts Arcand. “I had great fun working for the first time with actors, capturing and exchanging reality. My attitude was ‘let’s try to help each other.’” After that, with the exception of Love and Human Remains, Arcand wrote all of his own movies because, as he puts it, “Nobody sent me good scripts. I’m not lucky. Sometimes it’s not for me.”

While filming a documentary on Maurice Duplessis, Arcand became inspired for his next film Réjeanne Padovani, a story about political corruption. Outside churches and political meetings, Arcand would observe government ministers’ chauffeurs, who were also policemen by day, chatting up drivers from the underworld. “They were talking about cars, and so I thought they must already know each other and have some kind of a relationship. Out of this came the idea of a dinner.” In the film, Vincent Padovani, a sleazy construction mogul, hosts a dinner for the mayor and for the government minister who awarded him a highway construction contract. “Slowly, in the shower, the story comes to you. Padovani is married and separated, and his wife lives in the U.S. You get something that is half-baked, and then you sit down with pen and paper and work on it like a dog.” Arcand shares his long-held secret desire to be an opera director and he indulged his passion by working the music into the film’s storyline. He explains, “The mayor loves opera, and Padovani hires a beautiful soprano to sing ‘J’ai perdu mon Euridice’ from Gluck’s Orfeo et Euridice. The mayor is totally smitten. It’s about control and contracts.”

Tackling political issues head-on is part of Arcand’s straightforward nature. “If you are dealing with social issues, there is always a political side to it. These were very political times in Quebec. There was the FLQ and the bombs. There was Kent State and the Vietnam War. The PQ came to power in 1976. My films were never militant. Politics was part of the reality. In 1980, I did a film for the NFB on the referendum. After that, there was never anything specifically political in my films.”

There were lean years for Arcand before the 1985 hit The Decline of the American Empire (Le Déclin), which took a cynical look at the sexual values of Quebec Society. It was a “make it or break it” period in his life. “When I was 45, doing Decline, it was a defining moment. If this film hadn’t worked, I could have quit.” It has even been suggested by some that if the film had indeed failed, Arcand could have found himself in such dire straits that he may have had to live in more modest surroundings such as in a Salvation Army hostel. “Maybe nobody would have hired me. It was very important at that time in my life. It allowed me to work in film for the rest of my life with certain comfort.” He adds that after Decline, he was able to take on commercial shoots which helped pay for his apartment.

What does he attribute to the film’s success? Luck, in the form of perfect timing. “I worked very hard on all my films. It was perfect for that time. It just resonated with the audience. They wanted to see that film at that moment.” He explains that the same film could have easily failed two years earlier or two years later.

To his growing stable of movie successes Arcand, added the 1989 film, Jesus of Montreal. The story came to Arcand while auditioning for a shoot, when one of the actors apologized for sporting a beard, saying he was playing Jesus at St. Joseph’s Oratory. “I went [to the Oratory] and saw these actors in a cheap production being lapped up by tourists, and I decided I needed to make a film.”

Arcand prefers to focus on one project at a time. Le Déclin took him about two years to write, while Jesus took only one year. “Barbarian started in 1992, I did two drafts but it wasn’t good enough.” Ten years later, Arcand found the solution to his problem by bringing back his characters from Le Déclin.

Arcand hones his craft with purpose and dedication. “When I did my first film I didn’t know anything. I started with one lens, a 35 mm, and a static camera with no movement. I just learned one element after another. That’s the path I choose to use.” He began filming in black and white but now he uses the “full palette of colours.” For Arcand one of the main changes that has made an impact on him as a filmmaker is the speed of the film stock. The steady cam is a “revelation” and “a joy” to him and he has used it in his last three films.

Although he used to edit his films himself, he now has an editor to whom he entrusts this work. Sheepishly, he adds, “I’m still there [during editing] everyday although she sometimes asks me to leave. It’s my film, it’s my life.” Nevertheless, Arcand believes that without collaboration “you will end up with only your talent” and that being open to other ideas will enrich the work and benefit the collaborators.

The Laurentians is where Arcand finds the kind of solitude that enables him to write his scripts. From Monday to Friday he lives alone in his cottage and only returns home to his family during weekends. Although Arcand avoids writing scripts during the summer (“summers are not made for work”), his self-imposed discipline, work ethic and almost monk-like existence when he is writing is remarkable. As he puts it, “Three months for the script. Calm and total concentration. I don’t have a computer and I don’t answer the phone.”

Arcand’s characters are created without any particular actor in mind. “We take one page from a lead and send it to a number of actors. The casting director is there alone with a camera. They come in and we record it. I’m looking at this at home and I say this scene is bad, and then the tenth actor plays it perfectly. For some reason, he is the character; he is more than what I had in mind. He brings his life and his sensibility. He enriches what I’ve written.”

The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand’s 2003 Academy Award-winning film, delved into the darkness of death. In the same year, during an interview with MacLean’s, Arcand openly mused about euthanasia and terminal illness. These days he is more upbeat. Much of this has to do with his daughter Mingxi, whom he adopted from China ten years ago, with his wife and producer, Denise Robert. “Before, I didn’t care about my health, but I think my daughter needs me for another ten years. I want to be there for her, to equip her with the best education to face life.” Arcand becomes sentimental when he reflects on his youth. “There are tender scenes from my own childhood that I had forgotten. Now I want to make a film about my own memories. It would be rather sweet and optimistic.” He seems to have put some thought to this matter and willingly outlines his idea. “One guy remembers his childhood. Who is he? He’ll probably be an architect since they look like filmmakers and they build and are creative.” Had he been better at mathematics, Arcand may have chosen a career in architecture instead of filmmaking. He has recently viewed a documentary on architects and plans to meet with a few in the profession to gather material for a future film.

Given Arcand’s stellar film record, it is somewhat comforting to learn about his shortcomings. With his characteristic frankness and without apology, he admits, “I’m the worst teacher. I tried at UQAM [Université du Québec à Montréal] and did six months at Laval University. Both times, the students went to the Dean to have me fired.” He bemoans the fact that students were more interested in talking about the Cannes Festival than about photography. “You have to start from scratch to explain why with short lens, the depth is large and long, and why with long lens the depth is short. What you ask of an actor depends on what lens is on the camera. Very great actors check on the camera first. It takes a lifetime to learn that.”

Early reviews of Arcand’s latest work, Days of Darkness, which was shown at Cannes last May were mixed. Having won every award there is, Arcand doesn’t seem much concerned. Since he gets about a third of his budget from governments, he has the freedom to present what he wants. He doesn’t believe in making a lot of changes. “I want to please people, but I want to tell them something about life.” He did take feedback after Cannes and cut three to four minutes from a scene in preparation for this year’s December 7th Quebec premiere.

In the film, Arcand casts Rufus Wainwright as the opera singer, a seemingly odd choice. “My pet theory is that people who sang opera [in the 18th century] were also actors, much like musical comedy is sung now. I was looking for someone who could sing with a totally undeveloped voice and someone who is musical. Rufus Wainwright does great. He comes back at the end to sing another aria.” Hearing Arcand talk knowledgeably about opera, one wonders why he hasn’t directed one already. “Wagner is not my cup of tea,” or else he would have been part of the COC’s Ring production. “I like Handel operas, but the librettos are insane!” he laughs. Arcand offers hope when he adds, “I just haven’t found the right opera yet.” Maybe he should write his own. n

Arcand’s Top 5 Picks (in no particular order)

› -Akira Kurosawa, The Seven Samurai.
Look at it. The story, the way it is shot.

› -John Ford, The Man who Shot Liberty Valance.
Absolutely perfect.

› -Luchino Visconti, The Leopard.
The end of italian aristocracy. He was also a great opera director.

› -Ingmar Bergman, The Silence and Scenes from a Marriage. Absolutely profound.

› -Luis Buñuel, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.
Absolute surrealist. Perfect picture.

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