“We are asked to think morally: is the happiness these characters seek possible or desirable?”
One of the most powerful scenes in Denys Arcand’s great new film L’Âge des Ténèbres actually turns on the cameo of a character from elsewhere in the Arcandian universe. This story’s hero or at least protagonist Jean-Marc (Marc Labreche) is paid $68,000 a year by the Quebec government to show that the government cares. He is a provincial “complaint officer,” charged with lending a sympathetic ear and offering advice to citizens of La Belle Province who have fallen on hard times. Into his cubicle strides an old and shaken man, whom viewers of Les Invasions Barbares and Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain immediately recognize as the swift-tongued humanities professor Pierre (Pierre Curzi).
In the earlier films we saw Pierre in his prime. He is the most confident exponent of a nihilistic hedonism in opinion and the most shameless pursuer of sex in fact. He’d never be Braudel or Toynbee, he tells a young grad student in Le Déclin, and all that’s left is Sex. Pierre’s appearance in this film is, to say the least, cathartic. The slick womanizer has been reduced to poverty — he had come to Jean-Marc to inquire about public housing — because of his lust. The woman who had married because of “intense sexual attraction” has left him and taken him for all he was worth.
Pierre is shriveled, broken, and alone. It is not simply that the old man as lecher is not a pretty sight. Arcand seems to imply that life or nature somehow rejects this sort of hedonism, or at least has the last laugh if you somehow manage to persuade yourself that such a life constitutes happiness. Yet this is not simply a barb at the morality of the intellectuals (though it very surely is this, too). Jean-Marc, too, the bureaucrat from the suburbs, is miserable. He complains that his real-estate agent wife (Sylvie Leonard) will never listen to him, and in fact just high-tailed it to Toronto with the company CEO; his early teenage daughters are already sluts; he commutes two-and-a-half hours to a dreary job with a despotic boss. He hadn’t had sex in a year and a half. All of this after a youth spent playing in rock bands, working for a student newspaper, and campaigning for Quebec Independence.
The scene is so poignant because Arcand shows that for the intellectual or everyman the problem is to some degree the same. Pierre had fancied himself free of all conventions, but freedom for him meant nothing more than unbridled pursuit of his sexual impulses. Jean-Marc, on the other hand, feels tyrannized and “repressed.” The plot of the movie advances through Jean-Marc’s fantasies, many of them sexual, and, one might add, hilariously portrayed by Arcand. Jean-Marc in the film flirts with the belief that he would be happy with the sort of life actually lead by Pierre. Despite their different circumstances, the two, when meeting in Jean-Marc’s cubicle, are both broken and unhappy, in no sense free men.
Arcand’s films revolve around the problem of unhappiness in the modern city: what causes it and what can be done about it. By this we admittedly do not explain much, for looking at this problem is a pretty standard formula for a popular “intellectual” movie: present the loneliness and soullessness of modern life, then, in heartwarming or heartbreaking way, how someone liberates himself and finds some measure of joy or meaning. The quintessential film of this genre is 1999’s American Beauty, to which L’Âge des Ténèbres bears more than a superficial resemblance.
Yet Arcand’s films seem to me much deeper than American Beauty and others of this sort because the question of happiness always seems tied to questions of the goodness and badness of opinions and ways of life. We do not simply follow characters (whose goodness we assume because they are the main characters) and root for them to find meaning and happiness however they conceive of it. Rather we are asked to consider what the character finds meaningful and then evaluate whether this is conducive to their happiness. We are asked to think morally: is the happiness these characters seek possible or desirable?
Arcand is unsparing in his satire of the super-bloated Quebec bureaucracy, the nanny state par excellence in action. A bystander whose legs are crushed by a falling lamppost in an accident comes to object that he has been charged for the damages to government property. That’s the law, regulations are regulations, there is no appeal, nor anyone even to speak with about an appeal. The employers and troubled citizens appear similarly helpless. The bureaucracy itself, on the other hand, is the model of dynamism. It puts the dollars of Quebeckers to work (it’s worth recalling that Quebec is the highest-taxed jurisdiction in North America), massive garish government offices, top-of-the line “education programs” for staff in political correctness and morale (lessons in laughter provided by the great folk at another government agency, Humeur-Quebec!). The government even picks up the tab for a massive aquarium in the office, which a hippie expert had insisted would be necessary to improve the office’s feng shui.
The pull-no-punches satire of the nanny state is fun, and, in Arcand’s case, a model of political daring. After all, as the Quebec and Canada logos peppering the credit testify, Arcand’s work is in many ways enabled by the sort of government agencies ruthlessly mocked here. But the satire serves a deeper point. The greater energy of the bureaucratic state has led to the impotency of the citizenry. Jean-Marc is nothing if not impotent. He is crushed by his circumstances, and Arcand wants us, at least to some degree, to sympathize with him for this weakness. Faced with neglect by his wife, bad behaviour by his children, and reprimands at work, Jean-Marc can only shrink further into his isolation. He at first doesn’t take a stand, perhaps because he can’t conceive how he could change things at home or work.
Rather, he retreats into the fantasy life, daydreaming he is the great politician set to lead Quebec to new frontiers, the brilliant writer of the suburbs, the award-winning actor, and the lover of the beautiful blonde actress who worships him. Each fantasy concludes with getting laid by a pretty superior-looking woman. But as the movie proceeds and his real-life situation becomes ever more untenable, Jean-Marc’s fantasies increasingly impact his behaviour. He sets out on a course to find real-life meaning. This quest for meaning — speed dating on the South Shore of Montreal, re-creation of medieval castle life in Northern Quebec — is a joy to watch. Arcand’s sympathetic eye shines through here, as he shows the touching and the bizarre, the hopeful and hopeless attempts in our era to achieve connectedness.
As the film progresses, Jean-Marc himself comes to the conclusion that most of these attempts are hopeless. Breaking the mold of his usual fantasies of grand success that culminate in raw sex with a very attractive television interviewer, he asks the interviewer whether she had ever had sex with someone she interviewed. Her reply: “No, I’m happily married.” Here begins Jean-Marc’s self knowledge. While suckling the breast of a woman living full-time as a medieval princess, he concludes frankly, “This can’t be the solution.” Jean-Marc, to his credit, rejects the way of the professor Pierre. His everyman-ness saves him here, and he realizes that the way of sexual hedonism or pure fantasy is not open to him, and that it’s a good thing that this is so.
At this point, Jean-Marc cracks, simply giving up his quest for connection. He retreats to his father’s old country-house by the water, where he begins to help an elderly couple next door with gardening. The film concludes with a beautiful scene of Jean-Marc peeling a luscious apple. Far away from the chaos of the city and of his disconnection, he finds in the country some rooting to reality, some real attachment to life. Jean-Marc seems to settle upon the lifestyle suggested by Epicurus: the chaos and the tumult of the city can do no good and cause havoc on your passions. Better to reflect on what you truly want. You’ll see your needs are quite simple, and you can live a life without fear. Cultivating one’s garden is the best way of life. This is a conclusion Jean-Marc reaches, but seemingly from exhaustion rather than reflection. And while the Epicureans did not preclude the possibility of love or friendship while cultivating one’s garden, Jean-Marc seems as if he will be alone.
Yet this is not necessarily a happy ending, and the viewer must wonder whether Jean-Marc has done well at the end of his journey. There could, of course, be another path from that moment he rejects fantasy. That path is characterized by the phrase “get on with it.” One might conceive of a man like Jean-Marc gaining some levity about his circumstances: laughing at the bureaucratic absurdities rather than being crushed by them. This is the way to a certain more active kind of modern citizenship. At the same time there could emerge a heightened sense of duty as a father and family man. For clearly, as Arcand’s portrayal of teenage girls indicates, raising them well these days would itself be a heroic task, worthy of the bravery of any medieval knight. The fact that Jean-Marc does not make this choice impairs the good opinion we gain of him over the course of his growing self-awareness. We cannot help but conclude that an important cause of his loneliness is a fatal lack of courage or integrity combined with a disposition that is perhaps a bit too tragic.
The film is not perfect. The dialogue, though containing some of Arcand’s usual literate witticisms, sometimes feels forced and unsteady, and the film is not immune from drifting into overwrought sentimentality. This is most apparent in repeated segments with Jean-Marc’s dying mother in a nursing home. These scenes try to forcefully induce us to sympathise with Jean-Marc because of his isolation and sadness. At other times, however, when witnessing his cowardice, we are inclined, I believe not entirely against Arcand’s will, to see at least some validity in Jean-Marc’s fantasy girlfriend’s complaint that she is sick of getting stuck in the fantasies of losers. But this discrepancy is not as much a product of inconsistent filmmaking as it is of an emotional and intellectual tension: to what extent is compassion the appropriate moral and political response to flawed men? Are we most in need of compassion, or of the condition characterized by the phrase “stiff upper lip”? Arcand has no answer, but to state that this is a problem for him is already to praise in very high terms his attempt to wrestle with our difficult moral condition.