Days of Darkness (2007): Denys Arcand’s Acid-Streaked, Misanthropic Social Satire

Cannes Film Fest 2007 (Closing Night, Out of Competition)–Denys Arcand’s Days of Darkness is an acid-streaked, misanthropic social satire about a Walter Mitty-like Everyman whose elaborately imagined fantasy life masks a deep and unflinching pathological resentment.

Admittedly, the film has some funny, lacerating moments, but the tone is unnecessarily merciless and the work is neither edifying nor illuminating to watch.

Arcands best movies (Jesus of Montreal, The Barbarian Invasions) offer a brash and uncensored indictment of the mores and hypocrisy of social and political institutions. In contrast, the new movie is so bleak and unrelenting that it ultimately becomes punishing and self-annihilating. The satire has the occasional sly or droll putdown, though most of the characters are treated with contempt, and the comedy is not balanced by acute observation or complex characterization.

Shot in a permanent dust cloud of a gray and industrial wasteland, “Days of Darkness” has an episodic structure. The text records the humiliations and privations of a Quebec civil servant Jean-Marc (Marc Labreche) as he drifts through a walking nightmare of sexual humiliation and private torment. Newspaper, radio and television reports indicate a dystopia. In one of several inconsistencies of the script, the movie opens with all the characters wearing SARS-like surgical masks, a point that’s alluded to and quickly dispatched, but never brought up again.

The characters surnameLeblancsuggests a man without definition or presence. His wife, Sylvie (Sylvie Leonard), an aggressive realtor, is a vengeful and emasculating shrew whose materialist obsession with status and work has erected a permanent wall between them. His two teenage daughters are wholly indifferent to him. Every despairing day, he negotiates a hellish commute to his job as a civil servant for the Quebec government, attending to citizens complaints. His mother is near the end of her life with her ghostly pale body permanently restricted to the bed at her nursing home.

In James Thurbers classic short story The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (which is being remade this year with Mike Myers), the protagonists vivid fantasy life of accomplishment, initiative and power finds its correlative here in Jean-Marcs elaborate alternate existence of wild sexual engagement with a beautiful actress (Diane Kruger). He also imagines himself a prize-winning author, a gallant knight and a powerful politician. His other supreme object of desire is a beautiful television journalist (Emma de Caunes).

The workforce portrait is the movies comic highpoint, a rousing comment about how political tolerance has eliminated all forms of irony, such as him referring to his black friend as a Negro and being officially reprimanded by his superiors or a literal dog police squad that informs against workers violating the restrictive government smoking bans. This is funny and chillingly precise though it unfortunately proves too isolated in the films broader landscape to gain any deeper traction.

At their less inspired, the directors ideas fail spectacularly, such as a bleak fantasy sequence about muscular black men sexually violating Jean-Marcs off-putting work supervisor (Elizabeth Lesieur). Most problematic the conception of Jean-Marcs wife is so ugly and offensive the movie loses all sense of proportion and fairness and devolves into meanness and misogyny that demonizes career women. Its no wonder he has meaningful relationships with fantasy figures submitting to his every desire, he is clearly incapable of maintaining a normal and healthy relationship.

Clearly carrying on an affair with her boss, Sylvie leaves her family for a job in Toronto, their separation theoretically opening up Jean-Marcs romantic possibilities. In a painfully unfunny sequence set at a rendezvous for singles, the women are painted as nasty, duplicitous and deranged, Naturally, Jean-Marc hooks up with the one, Beatrice (Macha Grenon) most disassociated from reality. It leads to a long and complicated set piece restaging a medieval jousting match that for all of its sound and fury has a very limited pay off.

Labreche is a talented actor, and he makes little effort to camouflage or soften the characters unpleasantness or misanthropy. Arcand undertakes strenuous means to locate the characters misery without ever truly providing some context for how the got there and why he is incapable of change. As a young man he says he wrote political commentary, acted in plays and had significant literary ambitions, the very foundation of his projected existence that he now dreams up to cushion against the mediocre life that he actually suffers through.

Furthermore Arcand is never afraid to make judgments against secondary characters though he seems never to make the hard assessments about his protagonist. The character is a joyless scold who acts out violently and vindictively against anybody else he imagines having fun or excitement. This includes his oldest daughter in the movies most uncomfortable action after discovering her sexual experimentation with a neighborhood boy.

By the end, having witnessed all manner of heartbreak and defeat, death, rejection and loss of identity, he returns to the summer cottage on the coast that belonged to his father. Arcand loosens up a bit and finally allows a ray of hope and possibility of change. It is much too late and insufficient to overcome the very sour and bad taste this movie leaves you with.

Reviewed by Patrick Z. McGavin