The most internationally successful filmmaker to emerge from Quebec, Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand transitioned from activist documentarian to insightful observer of the human condition with several acclaimed feature films. Arcand first gained notice while employed at Canada's National Film Board when his politically sensitive textile industry exposé "On est au cotton" ("Cotton Mill") (1970) was deemed by the organization to be too volatile to be released for several years. He ventured into dramatic storytelling with his first feature film, the crime drama "La maudite galette" ("The Damned Cake") (1972) and ultimately found his thematic footing with the lauded societal character study "The Decline of the American Empire" (1986). Although English language efforts like "Love and Human Remains" (1993) and "Stardom" (2000) met with mixed to negative results, respectively, "Les Invasions barbares" ("The Barbarian Invasions") (2003) won Arcand the Best Foreign Language Oscar he had been flirting with since "American Empire." Branded an unrepentant pessimist by some, while heralded as a perceptive social commentator by many others, all agreed that Arcand was a talented filmmaker with something to say, not merely about his native Quebec, but about the world at large.
Born Georges-Henri Denys Arcand on June 25, 1941 in the village of Deschambault, Quebec, Canada, he was the son of devout Roman Catholics. His father was a river boat pilot and his mother trained as an artist and musician and once harbored aspirations of becoming a nun. Filled with childhood dreams of achieving sainthood, Arcand attended Jesuit school at the College of Sainte-Marie for nine years after the family moved to the cosmopolitan city of Montreal. Later, he briefly considered a career in athletics while studying history at the Université de Montréal, until his growing interest in film eclipsed all other aspirations. It was during this time that Arcand wrote and directed his first short film, the ambiguously titled "Seul ou avec d'autres" ("Alone or with Others") (1962).
After graduation in 1962, Arcand went to work for the National Film Board of Canada as a writer-director, producing several well-received documentaries focusing on a variety of subjects, including history, politics and sports. A determined social activist, the filmmaker sought to expose the alleged abuses taking place in Canada's textile industry via the feature-length documentary "On est au cotton" ("Cotton Mill") (1970). At the height of a politically charged period in Quebec, its release was barred for years by the NFB, who were concerned about the film's inflammatory subject matter and pointed to the perceived "bias" in Arcand's approach to the material as justification. Undeterred, he continued to follow his moral compass, producing another politically-charged documentary, "Quebec: Duplessis et après..." ("Quebec: Duplessis and After...") (1972), which focused on the legacy of the controversial mid-century Premier of Quebec, Maurice Duplessis.
Looking to expand his own artistic horizons, Arcand directed his first fiction feature, "La maudite galette" ("The Damned Cake") (1972), a particularly nasty crime-thriller about greed, theft, murder and betrayal that made effective use of its Quebec setting. His next feature, "Rejeanne Padovani" (1973), was set against the construction of Montreal's Ville-Marie superhighway and like its predecessor, examined the less-than-admirable qualities of its morally bankrupt cast of characters. For "Gina" (1975) - considered by some to be an unheralded masterpiece - the director drew upon his experiences filming "On est au coton" to fashion a tale of violence and revenge about a stripper and a film crew working on a documentary about the textile industry. Following some work for TV and the production of yet another controversial documentary for the National Film Board about Quebec's 1980 referendum for secession from Canada, Arcand returned to features with "Le crime d'Ovide Plouffe" ("The Crime of Ovide Plouffe") (1984), the tale of an adulterous husband (Gabriel Arcand, the filmmaker's brother) suspected in the death of his wife.
Two years later, Arcand delivered his breakthrough film, "The Decline of the American Empire" (1986). Marked by the writer-director's typically cynical humor, "Decline" focused on a group of Quebecois artists and intellectuals - four men and four women - discussing issues of sexuality, success, fidelity, intimacy and aging in contemporary society. The evening ends in a chaotic blend of revelations, incriminations, accusations and outright hostility. Favorably compared to the films of John Sayles and Lawrence Kasdan, it went on to sweep that year's Genie Awards - the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars - in addition to picking up an award at the Cannes Film Festival and garnering an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.
Arcand followed that triumph with "Jesus of Montréal" (1988), a tragicomic account of a group of struggling Montreal actors who support themselves by giving revisionist nighttime performances of a Passion play. Allegedly, the film was inspired by an actor who auditioned for "Decline" and told Arcand that he was portraying Jesus in an old French play being performed for tourists visiting the city's famed Saint Joseph's Oratory of Mount Royal. The director became fascinated with the lives of these Montreal artists who made a living as biblical figures by night and performed in beer commercials and porno films during the day. A dazzling mix of Christian allegory and contemporary satire, "Jesus of Montreal" was a highly personal work, influenced by Arcand's rigorous Catholic education and disillusionment with the church. Clearly at the height of his powers, Arcand received yet another Genie for Best Film in addition to another nod from the Academy Awards - the latter nomination marking a first in Quebec film history.
After contributing a segment to the omnibus film "Montréal Vu Par..." ("Montreal Seen By...") (1992) which celebrated the 350th Anniversary of the founding of the city, Arcand helmed the screen version of Brad Fraser's controversial play "Love and Human Remains" (1993). Following a disparate group of Canadian twenty-somethings searching for personal fulfillment and sexual satisfaction, it artfully employed a subplot about a serial killer lurking in the neighborhood as a metaphor for the looming shadow of AIDS in the early-1990s. While not as universally heralded as his previous two efforts, Arcand's first English language film was warmly received by his growing international audience. He returned with the urban character study "Joyeux Calvaire" ("Poverty and Other Delights") (1996), which followed two homeless men (Gaston Lepage and Benoît Brière) discussing their lives, past and present, as they search for a missing friend on the streets of Montreal.
The critical acclaim Arcand had consistently enjoyed throughout the previous decade was noticeably absent for the heavy handed satire "Stardom" (2000), a commentary on the shallowness of celebrity pop-culture, starring Jessica Paré and Dan Aykroyd. He rebounded exceptionally well, however, with "Les Invasions barbares" ("The Barbarian Invasions") (2003). Arcand's sequel to "The Decline of the American Empire," it revisited the earlier film's characters some 17 years later, as they continue to question their lives, their relationships with their offspring, and their own mortality. While a few critics dismissed it as snobbish and pessimistic, the vast majority hailed the film, which won Arcand another Best Picture Genie and, at last, the Oscar win for Best Foreign Language Film. Less embraced was "L' Âge des Ténèbres" ("The Age of Ignorance") (2007), a comedy-drama about an unremarkable civil servant who becomes a dashing womanizer in his fantasies, while his actual home life offers only a soul-crushing, reality.
By Bryce Coleman