The Review/Interview/

The Most Expensive Psychoanalysis You Could Get

Quebec cinema pioneer Denys Arcand discusses his long life in cinema

by
Aug 9, 2017

This weekend, Denys Arcand is coming to TIFF where three of his films (Réjeanne Padovani, Jesus of Montreal, and The Decline of the American Empire) will screen as part of the organization’s ongoing Canada on Screen programming, Arcand, (who is in pre-production for his next feature, Le triomphe de l'argent), is a natural storyteller and it ends up being the rare interview where you spend most of it laughing. The much-decorated auteur, whose 2003 feature The Barbarian Invasions won both the Best Canadian Film award at the Toronto International Film Festival and his first-ever Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film, makes movies that find their pain, good humour, and pathos in history, both personal and political. Here, he discusses his breakthrough success with Jesus of Montreal, how the sex lives of strangers became his source material for The Decline of the American Empire, and if he ever regrets never leaving Montreal for Hollywood.

I wanted to start by asking if you feel like there are thematic links between the three movies you’re going to be screening at TIFF: Réjeanne Padovani, Jesus of Montreal, and The Decline of the American Empire.

I don't see any, except that I made all of them. Apart from that, they're quite different. They belong to different parts of my brain, different experiences that I had.

I know what you mean about different parts of your brain. Jesus of Montreal feels like a film about the dissatisfaction of being a young man and how an institution like religion could impede you. It's also quite satirical.

Yes, but this is not my point of departure. The idea of the film started from the fact that I was brought up in a very strict Catholic family. My mother wanted to be a nun. In fact, she was a member of the strictest order of the Catholic Church for two or four years before she married my father. My father was also a very religious person, which meant I was brought up by people who were quoting the gospels all the time and going to Mass every day.

I was a young filmmaker in Montreal, living in a penthouse and driving a sports car. This part of my childhood was something of the past. One day, I was casting a commercial, and this young actor came in and said, "I'm sorry about the beard — it's because I'm Jesus." He said he was playing Jesus in this pageant on [Mont Royal] every night, and I went to see him. The pageant was ridiculously bad, but it got me thinking about this possible story of this actor playing Jesus and what it meant to me.

As soon as I started working on the film — I was reading the gospels and had my Bible on my desk — I suddenly realized this was part of me. I knew certain excerpts of the Bible by heart. So it had very little to do with Decline of the American Empire, or with Réjeanne Padovani, which was something entirely different.

Jesus of Montreal (1989).

What was the story behind those films?

With Réjeanne Padovani, I had previously made a documentary on Quebec politics in 1970 (On est au coton). In shooting that documentary, I realized there was these people in the mafia who had direct links to City Hall in Montreal and the Ministry of Transportation in Quebec City. What I wanted to say to the citizens around me was, "Beware, this is happening."

Decline of the American Empire was related to the crisis of my 40s when, suddenly, my first marriage crumbled and I realized that all the people around me were living through the same kind of crisis. We were all questioning ourselves about sexual mores and what have you, and this came out as a film.

So every film became a portrait of who you are. Do you feel like you make films possibly to find the answers to your problems?

Well, most filmmakers will tell you that if you write your own films, it's the most expensive psychoanalysis you could get. (Laughs) It's costing a fortune, it's costing millions, just for me to go to an analyst, but it's wonderful because you can go on living and you solve a few personal problems doing that.

That's amazing! Also, other people have to spend hours of their time helping you realize your issues.

That's it exactly, that's the plan! (Laughter)

Was your film, Jesus of Montreal, a controversial film to make?

I'm sorry to contradict you, but it was not controversial at all. My other films, like Réjeanne Padovani and Decline of the American Empire, were extremely controversial. Jesus of Montreal was universally liked. In fact, when the film was shown at the Cannes Film Festival, there is this obscure prize called the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury given by the three branches of Western religion: the Catholic Church, the Lutheran Church, and one of the English Protestant Churches. It's a fairly obscure prize, but it’s given to the film they deem having the best humanitarian values. I received that prize for my film. Jesus of Montreal was the easiest film I made — not in terms of making it itself, but the reception was enthusiastic. I won tons of awards, I was up for an Oscar for it... Everybody liked it.

The trailer for Jesus of Montreal (1989).

I was wondering what you think about this current path of Quebecois filmmakers like Xavier Dolan, Denis Villeneuve, and Jean-Marc Vallée transitioning to Hollywood.

Well, I'm very happy for them. Xavier Dolan's making his own films around the private market, so it's not the same thing as Denis Villeneuve, who's now a big, full-time Hollywood director — one of the hottest ones right now. Jean-Marc is doing television nowadays, but he will do a film in the future, I'm sure. Jean-Marc and Denis' careers are slightly different from Xavier's, but if they are happy, that's absolutely great. Maybe I could have done it. I had a few opportunities in my life, but I didn't follow that path for basically personal reasons. The reasons had to do with my girlfriends at the time.

Your girlfriends wanted you to stay in Montreal?

Yeah, they didn’t want to move! I was involved with women who were working, who had careers and responsibilities in Montreal. You have to work in Los Angeles, but my first offers came from Paris, so I could've moved to Paris and become a French director. Whenever I'm struck by a melancholy chord in my soul, I sort of regret not going to Paris more than Los Angeles, because Los Angeles is a city where I get easily bored, to tell you the truth.

Most of these offers, even from France or Hollywood, were never really to direct. What people offered me, generally, was to go away to Paris or Los Angeles to write scripts, which is even more complicated, because in order to be able to write an American script — or a French script, for that matter — I would have to go and live there. Writing is complicated, and you have to be very familiar with the territory in order to write anything that will sound true.

Do you feel protective of the identity of Quebecois cinema?

Nope, not at all. I don't really care about these issues. I happen to live and work here, but I don’t feel protective of Quebec cinema; it can live and die without me. I mean, I'm part of it and feel happy when other people are making good films and people say good things about us, but I don't feel responsible for it.

I'd like to talk about the controversy around The Decline of the American Empire and why you love making movies about relationships between men and women, about sex, and how that was also related to the personal crisis you were experiencing after the end of your first marriage.

Where do you want to begin? (Laughter)

The Decline of the American Empire (1986).

Well, let's begin with the process of writing the script, which was at once autobiographical but also points to larger themes in the sexual politics of society at the time.

It's very simple, and yet at the same time, I came to it almost by accident. I was part of a group at the National Film Board where Roger Frappier was a producer. At some point, he said, "I think I could raise money for a very small budget film. Could you make me the cheapest possible film? If we had just a few hundred thousand dollars, could you make a feature film with that?" I had just seen a film by Louis Malle called My Dinner with Andre, where he filmed a conversation in one night between two actors. It was very interesting — just two guys talking — so I said to Roger, "Why don't I write a film that will take place in one restaurant in one night but with several conversations? He said, "Okay, great idea. Do it."

Now, there is one type of conversation that you always want to hear if you're sitting in a restaurant. If someone at the next table is talking about their sex life, I'm sure you will listen. So that was the beginning of the film, and my working title at that time was something like Racy Conversations. I started writing about two guys talking about their wives, two wives talking about their husbands, one husband quarrelling with his wife, stuff like that in a restaurant. Roger read the first version and said, "This is very good, but why don't you expand it? Go out of the restaurant and do some flashbacks, or tell me more about these people.” Slowly, the film grew out of this. I talked about my experiences, my divorce, and the crisis with my first wife.

There’s also a question everybody will ask you when you tell someone at a party that you're writing a script: “What are you writing about?" I would say, "Oh, I'm writing about the sex lives of people." Very strangely, because I was a professional filmmaker, I became like a psychoanalyst, or a psychiatrist, if you will. People started telling me their most intimate stories, stories you wouldn’t believe. I discovered another side of people whom I had known for years: I didn’t have a clue that they had been living through this, or that they actually liked that kind of sexual activity. I ended up with tons of material and profited enormously from the confidence and revelations people made to me.

What did you realize about people’s relationship to sex through this process?

There’s an extraordinary malaise. Most people are very unhappy seuxally — you realize this because they tell you. They need to tell it to somebody, so if they don't have a psychoanalyst, they have a scriptwriter who they can tell stuff to that he's not even prepared to listen to. So out of all of this, in the end, that's the film that came out. I was very happy with it.

Why the backlash against it?

People want to tell themselves dreams and fantasies. When very starkly you say, "This is what's happening, this is how people talk, this is what they live through,” it's not saying, “Well, I'm sure you'll go back to your husband or wife and things will work out.” Most of the time, it doesn’t work out, and people don't want to hear that very often. At the same time, the film was enormously popular. Did you know that they made a play out of it this year in Montreal? It played to a full house for two months. They're going to re-stage it in October. It's still valid; it still talks to people.

The trailer for The Decline of the American Empire (1986).

Do you have a favourite sex scene in the film?

(Laughs) No, I don't. (Laughs) Well, the most famous scene, the one that people refer to all the time, is the massage scene where this girl talks about the year 1000 and the end of the world while she's giving a man a handjob.

Obviously, you went in with a shot list and talked about it with the actors at length...

Yeah, they knew what they were "getting into." (Laughter) I never do a shot list, unless I'm doing an action scene, or a chase scene, which I seldom do. Since my films are basically just people talking to each other, I improvise my shots as we go along.

That's so interesting, because I feel like your films have so much intimacy. They’re very lively and real, but cut together nicely. So how do you improvise a shotlist? If you are feeling out a scene, do you suddenly say to your cinematographer, “I'm only going to do this scene in one closeup?"

I'm in the process of doing this right now for my next project. First, you find the place where you're going to shoot your scene. Then you go to this place several times, just to look at it, and start imagining, "Oh, she could come through that door, or he could be sitting there." I think about it for an hour, go do something else, and a week later, come back with my first assistant and very often with the camera and the DOP. We’ll talk and say, "What do you see? If he's sitting there, is that good? Is she coming through that door?" And then it evolves naturally once the actors come in. You can say, "Well, try starting this scene sitting there, and what do you say if you come to that door? Do you feel comfortable with that?" The actors themselves will have an idea: "Oh no, I'd rather be standing there, I think it would be more interesting." Then we create the actual scene, we edit it, and then that’s it.

I think that the people who do the kinds of films I do always work the same way. I know that Woody Allen works like that, and Ingmar Bergman used to work like that. It’s a collective thing, so we all work together in a rather pleasant atmosphere in order to make something that we will enjoy seeing ourselves. It’s a very relaxed and creative atmosphere.

That sounds really nice.

Yes, it's really nice! It's fun.

Réjeanne Padovani (1973).

Do you ever watch re-watch the movies you've made?

No, practically never. I edit my films as well, so once the film is done, you've seen it 5,000 times. You only see the pitfalls, what you've missed, how you should have done a scene another way, or the thing you're not entirely happy with. So once the film is done, I just forget about it — except that, a couple of years ago I was in a hotel room in Toronto, of all places. It was rather early, 10 o'clock at night, and I was flipping through TV channels in my bed and there was a film of mine on television, called Stardom.

Yes, with Jessica Paré!

It was 20 years later, and I had forgotten almost everything about it. I didn't know which shot came after that shot; I had forgotten some scenes. I watched totally naively — like a real spectator, not a moviemaker. And it was so much fun! I shouldn't be saying this, but I quite liked it. (Laughter) I was watching it, thinking, “This is good stuff! It's well edited! It's nice." I was in a self-congratulatory mode, but I did enjoy it a lot because I got to see it with new eyes.

That’s so lovely. Is there anything else that you want to say about your work before you come to introduce your films at TIFF?

No! (Laughter)

You're done!

No, but I could go on for hours. Eventually, when we're all in the room together at TIFF, we'll talk some more.

See Denys Arcand introduce his films The Decline of the American Empire (screening August 11 at 6:15pm), Réjeanne Padovani (August 11 at 9:15pm), and Jesus of Montreal (August 12 at 6pm) at TIFF Bell Lightbox, as part of TIFF’s free Canada on Screen programming.