Denys Arcand: A Life in Film

Denys Arcand: A Life in Film

By Claude Lalumière

A review of Denys Arcand: A Life In Film by Réal La Rochelle

Published on April 1, 2006

Denys Arcand: A Life In Film
Réal La Rochelle

McArthur & Company
$24.95
paper
378pp
1-55278-537-8

Denys Arcand: A Life in Film is the rather prosaic translated title of Réal La Rochelle’s provocatively named Denys Arcand, l’ange exterminateur. I’ve only read the English-language version, but I’m left wondering if perhaps the title was not the only thing watered down in this text’s passage into English.

Throughout, the book skirts around Arcand’s politics and Quebec politics in general, which is rather odd, given the explicitly political nature of Arcand’s work, especially up to 1981’s Le Confort et l’indifférence, a documentary on the road to the first Quebec referendum on sovereignty. The book reports that the defeat of the Oui campaign so demoralized the filmmaker that he henceforth lost all interest in politics (a disingenuous claim by the always political director, unless “politics” serves as an undefined euphemism for “sovereignty”) – but that’s as close to a precise statement as we get. Repeatedly, the mere suggestion of appearing to endorse Canadian federalism is presented as such an obvious evil as to not be worth explaining.

The text’s relentless and irritating coyness suggests two equally unpleasant possibilities: either the original, French-language text’s sovereigntist content was dishonestly toned down for English readers, or, equally probable, the original text, prepared by and for Québécois, fails to recognize its cavalier sovereigntist bias.

In either case, the result is the same: an English text riddled with blanks. Arcand’s evolving and complex relationship with Quebec and Canada serves as the backdrop for many important moments in Arcand’s career, but it’s never made clear enough for readers to really know what Arcand believed at any given time in his life, why he believed it, and how that influenced his life and work. Thus a fascinating and important aspect of Arcand is left frustratingly fuzzy.

All these caveats aside, Denys Arcand: A Life in Film is a captivating and often entertaining read.

Most gripping are the sections dealing with Arcand’s education and burgeoning career during the culturally tumultuous 1960s – the Quiet Revolution and its aftermath. These sections could easily have been much longer and more detailed to satisfy at least this reader’s curiosity, but they succeed in passionately evoking the intellectual excitement that characterized both the times and the young Arcand.

Quite interesting also are La Rochelle’s mini-journal of his visit to the set of Les Invasions barbares, the snippets from Arcand’s rural boyhood, the tale of his early struggles with political censorship, and the insights into the restless maverick’s unrealised projects.

Despite its coyness surrounding politics, Denys Arcand: A Life in Film paints a winning portrait of the iconoclastic Québécois filmmaker, depicting him as a warm, wry, risk-tasking, and relentlessly intelligent artist who refuses to conform to anyone else’s ideas of who he is or what he should do.

The author admits to being an old friend of Arcand’s, and occasionally his unwavering admiration for Arcand and his work results in the book sounding a bit too much like a cheerleading squad — but, as it’s obviously a case of genuine passion, it’s easily forgivable. La Rochelle does not hesitate to quote Arcand’s many detractors, as he does his supporters, and the panoply of extreme reactions to Arcand both as artist and as celebrity is an essential element of the story La Rochelle weaves. It makes for exciting and thought-provoking reading.

Finally, Denys Arcand: A Life in Film is a treasure chest for Arcand aficionados. It includes extensive excerpts from Arcand’s own writings, a complete filmography, an extensive bibliography of Arcand’s publications, lists of scripts and theatre works, an exhaustive chronology of interviews, and other archival material.

mRb
Claude Lalumière is the author of the forthcoming collection "Objects of Worship" and editor of eight anthologies including "Tesseracts Twelve: New Novellas of Canadian Fantastic Fiction."

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