Sunday, March 16, 2008

Great White Darkness

The nominations for the best foreign language Oscar surprised many this year by snubbing the supposed frontrunners. Many expected French Canadian Denys Arcand’s Days of Darkness (L'âge des ténèbres) to be in the running, based on his Oscar track record. However, unlike Persepolis and 4 Months 3 Weeks and 2 Days, the Academy actually knew what it was doing by declining to nominate Darkness.

Now playing at the MoMA as part of its Canadian Front series, Darkness is a wildly uneven film that at least contains some creative scenes, making it a perfect film to screen at MoMA, if you are a member. Darkness has screened here and there in America, but does not appear to have secured substantial distribution yet. It does open in select English speaking Canadian cities next Friday, so Vancouver and Toronto, this review’s for you.

Jean-Marc LeBlanc has the worst job in near-future Montreal. He is employed by the Citizens Rights government agency to listen to peoples’ complaints and then tell them whatever the problem is, that is not his department. It seems there is much to complain of, as the vaguely futuristic Canada appears to be slouching towards Orwell’s Oceania. The bureaucracy of Quebec has become so bloated, the government is actually housed in a converted stadium, which makes for some truly surreal scenes—the sharpest of the film.

LeBlanc’s home life is an even greater train wreck than his professional career. His wife is a shrewish realtor, lifted straight out of American Beauty, and his daughters could care less about him. To cope he develops a vivid (and often erotically charged) fantasy life, which appears to be intruding into his perceptions of reality. Only when visiting the dying mother he can no longer reach does LeBlanc wholly exist in cold, hard reality. Marc Lebreche is actually a consistently watchable screen presence as LeBlanc, a role that spans low comedy and high drama.

Some of the fantasy scenes are amusing (Rufus Wainwright even appears in the opening sequence). However, they never break new ground—Woody Allen for one, has mined this vein with far richer results. Politically, it does seem to take shots at both sides, but it goes out of its way to conflate to conflate the struggle against terrorism with the abridgment of civil liberties. At one point, LeBlanc finds himself at a gathering of medieval re-enactors and before you can say Saladin, someone gives an ugly Christian speech advocating a crusade against Islam.

Darkness wants people to think of it as Walter Mitty meets 1984, but that would not be an apt description. Frankly, LeBlanc lacks the charm of Mitty and the desperation of Winston Smith. In a way, Arcand deserves some credit for not overdoing the Big Brother world-building. In fact, much of the impending dystopia appears to be political correctness run amok. There is a very funny scene in which LeBlanc faces a bureaucratic star chamber for some un-P.C. remarks, ultimately trumped by the power of his civil service union—remember, this is a Canadian film.

Darkness is a strange film in that despite being quite heavy-handed, it is not clear what message it wants to leave for the audience. Certainly, there is the idea that one must engage with the world, such as it may be, and not retreat into a world of self-absorbed fantasy, but surely audiences can get this fairly readily.

There is a dubbed trailer for the English Canadian release, playing up the whimsical elements, but one hopes they have not dubbed the film itself. This short trailer is less descriptive, but faithful to the film’s best moments. Darkness opens in Toronto and Vancouver the 21st, and plays at the MoMA again (with subtitles) on Wednesday.