Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Marc Lebreche, Diane Kruger
It would be easy to call Days of Darkness an American Beauty retread, as Denys Arcand’s film centers on an unhappy suburbanite who is disrespected by his children and married to a woman (a realtor, no less) who has no interest in him sexually or otherwise, and who has a terrifically active fantasy life which threatens to usurp his real life in importance. The comparisons come easily and criticism based on those comparisons are, to an extent, valid. However, to dismiss the film so easily would mean missing the absolute charm of this very intelligent and very funny film.
Jean-Marc (Marc Labreche) is a middle-aged civil servant who hates his job, is unhappily married and ignored by his two daughters, helpless in the face of his mother’s terminal illness, and spends most of his day escaping into fantasies, most of which involve a revolving cast of women in various states of undress. However, his fantasies aren’t solely about scantily clad women who find him irresistible; he also fantasizes about becoming somebody, writing a book or being elected into office – anything different from his actual job. Jean-Marc uses his fantasies just to get through his days, but soon these aren’t enough: His wife (Sylvie Leonard) leaves him to run off with her boss to Toronto, his mother dies, he walks out of his job and crashes his car. It’s time for him to make a change, to start living life outside his head, and set himself on a path towards happiness.
The world in which Jean-Marc lives is like our own but slightly exaggerated, making for situations and problems which can seem both far fetched and frighteningly feasible at the same time. He works for the government, sitting behind a desk as various people come to him seeking help for problems that he has no ability to solve. One man lost his legs when a street lamp fell on him and now the government expects him to pay half the cost of putting up a new one. A woman’s husband is taken away by the police, suspected of being a terrorist simply because he’s Arab. There’s nothing Jean-Marc can do; his best suggestion is that she try to become friends with a celebrity and thereby bring enough publicity to the situation to embarrass the government into letting her husband go. Despite the fact that no one is ever actually helped by the ministry, there’s always a long line-up downstairs, one which often becomes unmovable due to the fact that the employees are constantly being taken away from their work to attend meetings to boost morale or find ways to achieve greater harmony between yin and yang in the office set-up.
There are a lot of really great sequences in the film, but I think my favourite involves Jean-Marc’s attempt at speed dating. After meeting with several women who dismiss him immediately for various reasons including the fact that he’s had a vasectomy, doesn’t work out, and drives a Hyundai, he finally meets a woman who has as rich a fantasy life as his own (two words: medieval festival). However, she turns out to be a little too into her fantasy world, reaffirming for him that a little bit of reality can go a long way.
The central performance by Labreche is engaging and, to various degrees, relatable and there are fine supporting performances by the actresses playing the myriad women in his life, including Diane Kruger, who appears as his go-to fantasy woman. Comparisons to American Beauty are inescapable but, for me, this is the more resonant film. I've always been a little put off by the casual misogyny of Sam Mendes' film, while this one is self-aware enough to be able to diffuse those "iffy" elements by consigning them to the realm of fantasy and making it clear that these fantasies, rather than empowering Jean-Marc, simply act as crutches and hold him back.