Denys Arcand's Days of Darkness have arrived, and not just as a film title.
The celebrated Montreal filmmaker is a multiple Genie, Jutra and Cannes awards winner and a four-time Oscar nominee, winning one.
But Arcand's latest opus is a disappointment for those of us who lionize him as one of Canada's greats. The new film is no match for The Decline of the American Empire, Jesus of Montreal and The Barbarian Invasions.
Days of Darkness (L'Age des Tenebres) is set entirely in a near-future Quebec and shot primarily in French (with English subtitles).
Arcand's dystopian yet occasionally humourous drama officially closed Cannes in May. It then played the Toronto filmfest in September in a tightened version with some of the messiest scenes shortened.
There are qualities here, vestiges of Arcand's wit and wisdom, plus glimpses of his ability to combine the sacred and the profane of Quebec society.
Days of Darkness is charming at times and provocative in other passages. Picking up vaguely where Barbarian Invasions left off, it is savagely satirical about Quebec .
This is a society that has become dysfunctional, a nightmarish echo of George Orwell's 1984. With Les Expos banished to Washington, the vast expanses of the Olympic Stadium now house government agencies that treat the homeless, the helpless, the weak and the vanquished with cruel indifference and bureaucratic bungling.
Smoking is a heinous crime. Words are banished from the vocabulary. Montreal traffic is horrendous. Crime is spreading. Medical care is chaotic. Plagues run rampant. Orwell's "Big Brother" may be watching, but he is a Big Idiot.
All that is fascinating, although presented without subtlety. But there are also long sections, especially the Renaissance Fair silliness, that are bewildering or ridiculous. The metaphoric return of the "Dark Ages" of medieval European civilization is so clumsy that the second act is a catastrophe.
In the third act, the film becomes a bucolic reverie that reinforces traditional rural values. Like peeling apples or putting up preserves.
This uneven storytelling, abrupt shifts of tone and the naive resolution of the conflict, doom the film.
At its core, the story is about a guileless government functionary (Marc Labreche). He hates his job in his cubicle at the Big "O", where he half-listens to clients begging for help and then dismisses them with barely a whisper of sympathy.
Among the hardship cases is politicized actor Pierre Curzi. Arcand, who wrote as well as directed, is making contemporary statements about his city and province.
Labreche, as our pathetic hero, hates his real estate broker wife (the hilarious Sylvie Leonard). She denies him sex. His kids ignore him. He anguishes over his dying mother.
Labreche escapes boredom through sexualized dreams that we see realized on screen. He fantasizes about a movie star (Diane Kruger) who adores him and provides the glamour and status he lacks.
Other phantom lovers range from a lesbian co-worker willing to cross over for him alone, to his female boss, a frigid bitch at work but a willing S&M slave in fantasyland.
The film lurches from these selfish dreams to harsh reality until the medieval times arrive, via a speed-dating liaison. Labreche hooks up with a Renaissance-obsessed nut case (Macha Grenon) who inspires our sex-starved hero to joust for her hand and body.
The dream-reality balance is thrown out of whack. Arcand loses his grip, never to get it back.
This is not the fault of the actors -- Labreche is excellent as the Everyman and the entire ensemble, which also includes Rufus Wainwright as a golden-voiced, operatic prince of fantasy, is good. So is Guy Dufaux's luminous cinematography.
Yet none of these qualities can overcome Arcand's fractured vision and the haphazard execution.
(This film is rated 14-A)