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What exactly is The Great Darkened Days (La Grande Noirceur)? Is it a minimalist Western? A pared-down period piece? An anti-war diatribe? A twisted Lynchian voyage through American abandon?
Actually, this fourth feature from Quebecois writer-director Maxime Giroux is all of these rolled into one, and then some. Hard to define — and at times, to follow — yet intoxicatingly made and extremely easy on the eyes, this story of a Canadian hobo wandering the far west as war wages on in Europe offers up rewards for those willing to hang on through the last, beautifully realized shot. Premiering in Toronto, the film may not have the box-office reach of Giroux’s last effort, Felix & Meira (which grossed over $400K in the U.S.), but it could still find its way to cult status.
Set in an abstract vintage version of the United States, with only a few elements indicating the time period (which seems to be the 1940s, although that isn’t entirely clear), the story follows Philippe (Martin Dubreuil), a down-and-out vagrant who, in the film’s stylish opening sequence, is seen participating with a group of men in a Charlie Chaplin imitation contest. He winds up winning the top prize and a handful of cash, but then gets mugged by a local thug (Good Time’s Buddy Duress), after which he’s obliged to set out on a long and painful journey through parts unknown.
Giroux, who wrote the script with Simon Beaulieu and Alexandre Laferriere, only provides a few details about Philippe’s life back home in Canada — the key one being that he’s a pacifist who dodged the draft and is on the run until the war ends. But Philippe may have ultimately preferred the battlefields of France and Germany to the series of ordeals he has to go through while hiding out in America, where he gets put through the wringer time and again.
Hungry, lonely and without a penny to his name, he first crosses paths with a traveling impresario (Reda Ketab), who seems like a nice guy but reveals himself to be just another shyster. After, he falls prey to a totally perverse woman of the frontier (Sarah Gadon), who, without giving too much away, has a a very sick and disturbing dog fetish. As if things weren’t bad enough, Philippe then winds up in the hands of a sinister French contrabandist (Roman Duris), who deals in human traffic and inhuman torture.
From one sequence to the next, Giroux reveals how the country has been transformed into one giant, surreal nightmare — a place where you’re either the hunter or the hunted, where people will do anything for a buck and where death seems to lurk behind each doorway or hilltop. It’s a bleak vision to say the least, although the director sets it against a magnficient backdrop that’s artfully captured by DP Sara Mishara (Tu dors Nicole), whose cinematography makes the film entirely watchable despite the weird, meandering narrative. Certain shots, such as a panorama of Philippe arriving in a snow-capped town, or another of a steam engine suddenly traversing the landscape, remain with you well after the movie ends.
Much more a metaphysical journey than a regular road movie, The Great Darkened Days can prove frustrating in its refusal to stick to a clear storyline or to a character we ever get to fully know, while the incongruity of its setting (at one point R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” blasts on an old car radio) adds another layer of confusion. But the film’s highly rich aesthetic — including hypnotic sound design by Stephen de Oliveira, Frederic Cloutier and Luc Boudrias — gradually works its magic as a beaten and bewildered Philippe enters the final phase of his long, strange trip. At that point, all the man seems to have left is wing and a prayer, yet, like anyone peering out into the great American wide open, he can always dream.
Production company: Metafilms
Cast: Martin Dubreuil, Romain Duris, Sarah Gadon, Reda Kateb, Soko, Cody Fern, Buddy Duress
Director: Maxime Giroux
Screenwriters: Maxime Giroux, Simon Beaulieu, Alexandre Laferriere
Producers: Sylvain Corbeil, Nancy Grant
Executive producers: Maxime Giroux, Eric Connelly, Neva McIntosh, Danelle Eliav
Director of photography: Sara Mishara
Production designer: Patricia McNeil
Costume designer: Patricia McNeil
Editor: Mathieu Bouchard-Malo
Composer: Olivier Alary
Sales: Seville International
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)
In English, French
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