Dir. Denys Arcand.Can-Fr. 2007. 115mins.
Also called at various stages Age Of Ignorance, Denys Arcand's new movie could also be called The Decline Of The Canadian Empire or alternately The Decline Of The Canadian Male.
And Michael Moore should be made to sit through it for as many times as it will take him to learn the truth about the Canadian paradise he has been trying so irresponsibly to peddle in his last two films.
An unflattering, sarcastically acid, episodic view of the Canuck world, this may very well serve as a spiritual sequel to Arcand's The Barbarian Invasion.
The story of a man of no interest - to use his own definition of himself - who escapes into fantasies that are no more interesting though far more glamorous than his own everyday life, it lacks the human touch, the empathy and the smart humour of his previous picture, which took Cannes by storm four years ago.
With that reputation in mind, quite a few markets may open their gates to the new entry, but shouldn't by any means expect similar results. Arcand's up and down career seems to be taking once again another turn, not necessarily in his favour.
Jean-Marc Leblanc (Labreche) a public servant at odds with the world, daydreams himself as an exotic prince serenading a beautiful princess, a famous author with a gorgeous star for a mistress (Kruger) a celebrity pursued by a sex-hungry female reporter (de Caunes), a great star of the stage, a guest on his favourite TV talk show, a participant in a medieval tournament, a sword-swinging samurai, and so on.
To lend some of these episodes a real edge, Arcand has guest stars such as Donald Sutherland or Bernard Pivot, an icon of Francophone intellectual TV, playing themselves.
All this is Leblanc's way to obliterate the unpleasantness of being ignored by his wife (Leonard), a real estate maverick utterly immersed in her own career, the embarrassment of being despised by his daughters who won't listen to him, the pain of watching his dying mother as she is gradually taking leave of her senses, or the insult of being persecuted by his immediate female superior (Neron) who never fails to pinpoint his shortcomings.
Worst of all, however, is listening every single day of his life to the grievances of his customers, whether it is a man who has been dispossessed by his wife of everything he has, an Arab woman whose husband was arrested because of the colour of his skin, a victim of a car accident who lost both legs when thrown against a lamppost by a passing car and is now sued by the city for damaging municipal property, and more.
All these people are perfectly entitled to complain but there is nothing he can do for any of them, except explain in detail how hopeless each one of their cases is. Or at best, direct them to another office where they will hear exactly the same thing. That is how the system works, or more exactly, how it doesn't work.
So concerned is Arcand with the miseries of everyday life, Leblanc's personal ones as well as those generated by the ridiculous barriers, bureaucracies and narrow-minded mentality of prevalent in Canadian life, that he ends up cataloguing them one after the other, piling up his evidence on how sour human existence can be, but never really staying much with any of the items mentioned.
More like a lexicon of what's wrong than a narrative piece, it offers a whole selection of occasional antidotes in the form of fantasies that may be suitable for the kind of 'everyman' that Arcand has chosen as his protagonist, but look both banal and less than imaginative coming from such an experienced director.
Directed with Arcand's usual aplomb, all the episodes are as suitably sarcastic as anything he has done, but also pretty cold, remote and calculated, even when supposedly touching.
Technically impeccable in every respect, brilliantly photographed, in effective sets that never fail to underline the intentions, it is accompanied by a rich Philippe Miller score with a lovely Gretry aria to start and end the entire proceedings.
The highly proficient cast has the right look and attitude, but none of the participants is required to offer more than flitting caricatures, while Labreche, who is the only one given the latitude to explore his character, never manages to put across more than a proverbial 'man of no interest'.
Voltaire took Candide for a long trip around the world before sending him to tend his garden. Arcand needs much less before dispatching his hero to the countryside, a questionable solution suggested by the end of the film, for lack of anything better.
Mon Voisin Productions
Emma de Caunes