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CANNES — To wrap up his impressive trilogy about where Western civilization stands in the run-up to and the aftermath of the new millennium, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand’s “Days of Darkness” insists that society has entered a new Dark Ages. A depressing thought, admittedly, yet “Days of Darkness” (aka “L’age des tenebres” or “The Age of Ignorance,” the title it screened under at the Festival de Cannes’ closing night) is the funniest of the three wonderful films going back to “The Decline of the American Empire” (1987) and the Oscar-winning “The Barbarian Invasions” (2003). For distributors, especially in North American and Europe, “Ignorance” will be boxoffice bliss as this film looks like an art house champion.
For the first third of his film, the writer-director has the time of his life poking fun at all the flaws and foibles of this dark age — from political correctness to career-obsessed frigid women. One horror follows another, as in Joel Schumacher’s “Falling Down,” only the difference here is that rather than taking lethal action its put-upon hero falls back on a rich fantasy life.
Jean-Marc (Marc Labreche, one of Quebec’s top comic actors) is a stranger in his own life. A distraught civil servant, he is totally ignored by his wife (Sylvie Leonard), Canada’s No. 3 real estate agent, and his two young daughters, all of whom dwell in a virtual world of mobile phones, iPods and computer games. Indeed, he hasn’t had sex with his wife in a year and a half. Even his beloved mother, slipping away from reality in a nursing home, can no longer communicate with him.
Road-raging drivers on the highway routinely curse him, his female boss (Caroline Neron) despises him and his job could not be less rewarding. Day after day, he travels a long distance by car and train to a government welfare bureau where he must listen to desperate people’s tales of woe only to reject any possible government assistant.
The office is housed in a giant, inhospitable edifice (amusingly created out of Montreal’s great white elephant, the Olympic Dome), where a sign in a pedestrian walkway warns “falling concrete” and tobacco police lurk everywhere looking for signs of nicotine addicts lighting up within or near its confines. Jean-Marc’s use of the word “negro,” to describe a co-worker and friend, gets him dragged into a meeting of scowling agency directors to chastise him for using “outlawed” language.
Ah, but Jean-Marc lives in two worlds. To escape the real one, the harried man takes refuge in daydreams where he is a famous novelist or victorious politician, receiving public accolades and giving interviews to a beautiful female reporter (Emma de Caunes), who immediately offers herself to him sexually.
His greatest fantasy figure is blond goddess and world famous actress Veronica Star (the lovely Diane Kruger), who greets him each morning naked in the shower and upon his return home at night with a flute of champagne, dressed in exquisite jewelry and designer outfits that ever so easily slip from her curvaceous body. She even inquires about his mother’s health, something his wife never does.
Other fantasies involves management at work. The tall, bespectacled man imagines himself as a Nina, gliding through the air across the table lined with scowling executives to swiftly remove the head of the chief scowler with a flash of his gleaming sword. Or he imagines his immediate boss as a sexual slave, her clothes tantalizingly ripped and torn.
Like Walter Mitty though, the two worlds of Jean-Marc remain forever separate. This discouraged failure as a father and husband suffers from compete inertia. Or at least he does until that fateful day his wife suddenly decamps for extended job training in Toronto under the company CEO, and we do mean under the CEO.
With this shackle fallen from his life, Jean-Marc ventures back into the real world. Speed dating hooks him up with an alluring crackpot who seduces him into her own escapism, a sort of Renaissance Pleasure Fair where everybody sheds modern clothes to play medieval knights, damsels, courtiers and peasants of the Age of Chivalry.
Here a conceit that isn’t as funny or telling as Arcand seems to believe sidetracks the movie for a while. But Jean-Marc’s exposure to Middle Ages macho does embolden him to stand up to road bullies, his daughters and finally his wife, who abruptly returns from Toronto.
The film’s back-to-nature ending is perhaps a little pat if not cliched. But what really hits home is Jean-Marc’s epiphany: To achieve his fantasies, he must leave the daydreams behind. He must do without his movie-star goddess, the fawning reporter and his trussed-up boss.
Arcand’s satirical critique of contemporary society is that of an acerbic, middle-aged (if not Middle Age) male chauvinist curmudgeon. His views of women are dim indeed. He wants to light up his cigarettes without anyone sulking. And he’s pretty sick of cell phones too.
Following the first film that took stock of sexuality and affairs of the heart and a second film about reconciliation and mortality, Arcand’s sardonic final film is a lighter yet still potent satire about sexual mores, human isolation and intolerance.
Much of the team from his previous film including cinematographer Guy Dufaux, designer Francois Seguin and editor Isabelle Dedieu perform with professional elan to support Arcand’s hilariously dark take on this new age of ignorance.
DAYS OF DARKNESS
StudioCanal/Cinemaginaire/Mon Voisin Prods./Cine-@/Alliance Atlantic/Vivafilm
Screenwriter-director: Denys Arcand
Producers: Denise Robert, Daniel Louis
Director of photography: Guy Dufaux
Production designer: Francois Seguin
Music: Philippe Miller
Co-producers: Dominique Besnehard, Philippe Carcassonne
Costume designer: Judy Jonker
Editor: Isabelle Dedieu
Jean-Marc Leblanc: Marc Labreche
Veronica Star: Diane Kruger
Sylvie Cormier-Leblanc: Sylvie Leonard: Carole Bigras-Bourque: Caroline Neron
Singing Prince: Rufus Wainwright
Beatrice de Savoie: Macha Grenon
Karine Tendance: Emma de Caunes
Running time — 115 minutes
No MPAA rating
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