Nationality: Canadian. Born: Deschambault, Quebec, 25 June 1941. Education: University of Montreal, M.A., 1963. Career: National Film Board of Canada, St. Laurent, Quebec, documentary filmmaker, beginning 1963; director of television miniseries Empire, Inc., 1982; creator of television commercials. Awards: FIPRESCI (International Federation of Cinematographic Press) Prize from Cannes International Film Festival, 1986, for Le Declin de l'empire americain; special jury prize from Cannes International Film Festival, and Ecumenical Prize from the World Council on Churches, both 1989, for Jesus de Montreal.
Films as Director:
Seul ou avec d'autres
Champlain (+ sc); Samuel de Champlain: Québec 1603 (+ sc)
La Route de l'Ouest (+ sc)
Volleyball (+ ed)
Québec: Duplessis et après.. (Québec: Duplessis and After. . . ) (+ ed, ph); La Maudite galette (Dirty Money) (ro as Detective)
Réjeanne Padovani (+ sc, ed)
Gina (+ ed)
On est au coton (Cotton Mill, Treadmill )
Le Confort et l'indifférence (Comfort and Indifference, Québec et aprés)
Le Crime d'Ovide Plouffe (The Crime of Ovide Plouffe, Murder in the Family) (+ sc)
Murder in the Family (mini—for TV)
Le Déclin de l'empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) (+ sc)
Jésus de Montréal (Jesus of Montreal) (+ sc)
Montréal vu par. . . (Montreal Sextet) (+ ro)
Love & Human Remains (Amour et restes humains)
Joyeux Calvaire (Poverty and Other Delights)
Stardom (15 Moments) (+sc)
Entre la mer et l'eau douce
Un zoo la nuit (Night Zoo) (ro as Man at peep-show)
La Vie fantôme (Phantom Life) (dialogue advisor); Léolo (ro as Director)
Les Amoureuses (scenographical advisor)
Dogma (special thanks)
By ARCAND: articles—
"Two Canadian Directors," interview with E. Kissin, in Films inReview (New York), vol. 37, no. 12, December 1986.
Interview with A. Masson and M. Ciment, in Positif (Paris), no. 312, February 1987.
"Le déclin de l'empire américaine. Entretien avec Denys Arcand," interview with F. Chevassu and Y. Alion, in Revue du Cinéma (Paris), no. 4242, February 1987.
"Conversation autour d'un plaisir solitaire," interview with P. Jutras, in Copie Zéro (Montréal), no. 34–35, December-March, 1987–88.
"Entretien: Points de vue et filmographie," in Copie Zéro (Montréal), no. 34–35, December-March, 1987–88.
"Jésus de Montréal. Actors, Magicians and the Little Apocalypse," interview with A. Barker, in Monthly Film Bulletin (London), vol. 57, no. 672, January 1990.
"Friheten att vaga," interview with M. Berthelius, in Chaplin (Stockholm), vol. 31, no. 4, 1989.
Interview with L. Bonneville, in Séquences (Montréal), no. 140, June 1989.
"Denys Arcand: prophète en son pays," interview with S. Garel, in Cinéma (Paris), no. 465, March 1990.
"Le point de vu des cinéastes, Denys Arcand," in 24 Images (Montréal), no. 47, January-February 1990.
"Of Warm and Sunny Tragedies," interview with Robert Sklar, in Cineaste (New York), vol. 18, no. 1, 1990.
On ARCAND: books—
Inner Views: Ten Canadian Filmmakers, New York, 1975.
On ARCAND: articles—
Sklar, Robert, "Decline of the American Empire," in Cineaste (New York), vol. 15, no. 2, 1986.
DeGryse, M. "Arcand on la vie d'artiste," in Copie Zéro (Montréal), no. 34–35, December-March 1987–88.
Pâquet, A., "Du comportement du cinéaste," in Copie Zéro (Montréal), no. 34–35, December-March 1987–88.
Harkness, John, "The Improbable Rise of Denys Arcand," in Sightand Sound (London), Autumn 1989.
24 Images (Montréal), special section, no. 44–45, Fall 1989.
Clarke, Jeremy, "Spiritual Solution," in What's on in London, 17 January 1990.
Harkness, John, "Sex and Sensibility: The Films of Denys Arcand," in National Film Theatre programme, March 1994.
Castiel, É. "Denys Arcand: le comfort sans indifférence," in Séquences (London), no. 171, April 1994.
McSorley, T., "Between Desire and Design," in Take One (Toronto), no. 4, Winter 1994.
Johnston, Trevor, "Love and Death," in Time Out (London), 20 July 1994.
Alioff, Maurie, in Take One (Toronto), vol. 5, no. 12, Summer 1996.
Seguin, Denis,"Executive Suite: Denys Arcand," in Screen International, 11 April 1997.
* * *
The career of the Québécois filmmaker Denys Arcand presents a bewildering roller-coaster in which periods of national and even world-wide acclaim have given way to stretches of near-total obscurity. Hailed in the early 1990s as "Godfather of the New Canadian Cinema" and fêted at Cannes as one of the leading contemporary filmmakers, since 1993 Arcand has been able to complete only two films, one of them a small-scale project for TV. This fallow period echoes another around 1980 when, despite having made a string of hard-hitting documentaries and three exceptional feature films, he was considered washed up and found himself reduced to directing episodes of mini-series for CBC television.
Arcand would be the first to admit that these setbacks stem, to a large degree, from his own reluctance to compromise. Provocative and politically aware, he sees film as a means of challenging society and its comfortable assumptions, and can rarely bring himself to follow box-office fashion. "You have to believe in the material," he told an interviewer in 1997. "You wouldn't believe how many scripts with Martians are floating around out there. I could never look at Star Wars; I'm sure it's well made, but I could never relate to the material." And even when he finds material he can relate to, Arcand is inclined to go his own way without regard to the consequences. A documentary he made for the National Film Board of Canada in 1970 so outraged the NFB that they suppressed it, only giving it a grudging release six years later.
Documentary took up the first decade of Arcand's directing career. Having graduated (with a degree in history), he joined the National Film Board to make a series of shorts on Canadian culture and history. "They were small films," he deprecatingly remarked, "and no one wanted to make them." Arcand used these half-dozen shorts to hone his technique and develop his ideas. At the same time he contrived to slip elements of his pessimistic humour and scepticism even into such anodyne subjects as Volleyball and Parcsatlantiques (Atlantic Parks)—often making tellingly subversive points through astute use of editing.
Open confrontation erupted over Arcand's first feature-length film, On est au coton (We're Fed Up), an exposé of the wretched working conditions in Quebec's textile industry. It succeeded in antagonising both the extreme left (who thought the propaganda should have been more outspoken) and the employers. The NFB accused Arcand of lacking objectivity and the film, which became a cause celebre, was suppressed until 1976. "The Film Board," observed Arcand, "makes thousands of films to say that all goes well in Canada. . . . So I think it is just normal that there should now and then be a film which says that everything is rotten and that we live in a country that is corrupt from top to bottom." He made two more full-length documentaries for the NFB, both dealing with Québécois politics. "Arcand's great theme is betrayal," commented John Harkness, "and his documentaries deal with that theme most explicitly."
Meanwhile Arcand had turned to feature films to pursue his disenchanted vision of Quebec society—and, by implication, of Western society in general. La maudite galette (The Damned Dough) was rather too obviously indebted to Godard, but with its two successors Arcand hit his stride. Réjeanne Padovani and Gina both make shrewd use of a thriller framework to explore political themes, and Gina adds in an element of sexual politics that anticipates his later work—as does its often teasing tone. Though consistently operating from a left-wing standpoint, Arcand mistrusts any form of dogmatism and enjoys upsetting audience expectations. "A good film is always pulling the rug out from under people's beliefs and prejudices," he once remarked.
The films attracted international notice—the French critic Jean Rochereau compared Arcand to Juvenal and Voltaire—but were too unsettling to gain popular success. For several years Arcand found his career hampered by official suspicion and changes in the system of Canadian government funding. He bounced back, quite unexpectedly, with his first international hit, Le déclin de l'empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire), a sardonic comedy about sex. Not a sex comedy; the eroticism is all in the talk. While preparing a lakeside dinner, four male academics discuss sex; at the gym their female counterparts do likewise. Finally they all meet for dinner where the conversation, and the revelations, continue. With nods towards Rohmer and late Buñuel, the overall effect is at once funny and bleak: a witty, perceptive study of an alienated society in terminal decline. The film won the Critics' Prize at Cannes, and was nominated for an Oscar.
Arcand gained his second Oscar nomination for Jésus de Montréal, a fable of passionate irony about an actor cast as Christ in the city's annual Passion Play who finds the role is taking over his life. Envisaging the film as "not a very commercial proposition" and likely to offend the religious as well as the secular establishment, Arcand was amazed when it became his greatest box-office hit, gaining an award from the World Council of Churches. "Woe unto you when all men praise you," he mused wryly.
Now rated "one of the most important of contemporary directors," Arcand went on to make his first English-language film. Love and Human Remains, a comedy about sexuality and murder, was adapted from a play by Canadian playwright Brad Fraser. Intended as the director's mainstream breakthrough, it flopped disastrously. Since then he has completed two films. Joyeux calvaire (Poverty and Other Delights), made for TV, is an amiable, undemanding chronicle of homeless people in downtown Montréal. Stardom, a pseudo-documentary on the rise and fall of a young supermodel, returns to Arcand's earlier satricial mode, but despite some shrewd jabs at the media it lacks real punch or personal insight. More ambitious projects, such as a long-cherished film about euthanasia, have so far failed to find backing. But given Arcand's resilience and remarkable come-back record, it would be unwise to write him off just yet.