Director: Denys Arcand
Starring: Eric Bruneau, Melanie Mercosky, Melanie Thierry, Marie-Josée Croze
Beautiful people doing ugly things in beautiful locations. An Eye for Beauty, the latest from Canadian master Denys Arcand, will give you a serious case of house envy, but inspires little beyond that. A listless drama about the emotional destruction wrought by an affair, Arcand reunites with actress Marie-Josée Croze for the first time since 2003's The Barbarian Invasions, for which she won Best Actress and he Best Screenplay at Cannes, and then gives her nearly nothing to do, which is a particular shame since she's always the most interesting person on screen whenever she appears. A rare misstep for Arcand, An Eye for Beauty is as emotionally empty as it is gorgeously photographed.
Eric Bruneau stars as Luc, a Quebecois architect who seemingly has it all: a beautiful wife, Steph (Melanie Thierry), an amazing house (albeit one apparently in the middle of nowhere), a strong group of friends, and a successful career. Yet despite all this, it takes very little to drive him to risk it all when he's propositioned by Lindsay (Melanie Mercosky), a woman who works in his field and whom he meets while on a business trip to Toronto. Nothing happens during their initial meeting, but when Lindsay contacts him to invite him to return to Toronto to work on another project, the work is clearly just an excuse and an affair is the true purpose. Luc spends the night with Lindsay, who reveals to him the next morning that she intends to leave her husband, and then retreats back home where Steph appears to be in the early stages of depression. Luc confides about his dalliance to his friend Nicolas (Mathieu Quesnel), who counsels him not to get carried away with another woman when he's already got it pretty good, and to his friend Isabelle (Marie-Josee Croze), a doctor whose help he seeks when he begins to worry that he might have caught an STD in the encounter. Despite the anxiety that the encounter has caused him, he continues to feel drawn to Lindsay, though it isn't entirely clear whether that's because of what he feels for her, or whether it's because he discovers that Steph is having an affair of her own.
Though he's temporarily distracted from his romantic problems by the sudden illness of his friend and partner, Roger (Michel Forget), and by a professional opportunity that presents him with the chance to take his career to the next level, Luc eventually finds himself drifting back towards Lindsay. As summer gives way to winter, and Steph descends deeper and deeper into depression, Luc makes plans to see Lindsay again, agreeing to meet her in Quebec City. Though their encounter is as passionate as it was the first time, the experience is tempered for Luc by the fact that he knows so many people in Quebec, which means that the affair is certain to be discovered (and ultimately is, by several people), and by Lindsay's confession that she's fallen in love with him. Worried that he's about to reach the point of no return, and fearful of what Steph, who has already attempted to harm herself during a ski trip, may do left all alone in their isolated house with his hunting rifles, Luc rushes home and is forced to confront the extent of Steph's mental distress.
Photographed by Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, An Eye for Beauty is at all times a beautiful looking film, its shots set up to take full advantage of the stunning natural scenery at locations throughout Quebec and the gorgeously constructed homes where parts of the film take place. Given that the film ends with a montage of images that look like they come from Architectural Digest, Arcand clearly knows what the film's strength is and the film visually rendered in a way that lives up to the title. However, while the film definitely has an eye for beauty, it has a surprisingly tin ear for dialogue. The affair between Luc and Lindsay never feels entirely organic in large part because Lindsay's seduction of Luc is so stilted that it drains any eroticism from the scene (it doesn't help that Luc's attitude towards the affair seems to be of the "well, why not?" variety). The "passion" that they feel for each other feels more perfunctory than anything, though that might have something to do with the pair of scenes which book end the film and provide an unnecessary glimpse at the two years into the future, when they meet again by chance and Lindsay has to remind Luc of who she is.
While the scenes concerning Luc and Lindsay fall flat more often than not, there are still moments when it seems like An Eye for Beauty will rise to the occasion. Arcand's use of the changing of seasons to telegraph the phases of Steph's depression is a bit heavy handed, but its depiction of her as she grows increasingly listless, despairing, and withdrawn are compelling and well performed by Thierry. Meanwhile there are several great scenes between Bruneau and Croze, whose character is the spouse of Steph's affair partner and whose performance hints, at without ever quite fully revealing, how much she suspects about that relationship. There is one scene, in particular, where Luc and Isabelle almost seem to be negotiating a way for their spouses to be together while each of them is away (Luc to Quebec to be with Lindsay, Isabelle to a medical conference) so that Steph will not be alone with her suicidal ideation. It's an intriguing scene and the relationship between Luc and Isabelle ends up being the most fascinating of the film as a result, but unfortunately that's not where Arcand's focus is. Instead the focus is on a much more conventional story of a marriage undone by an affair, capped by an ending which might feel bittersweet if only you ever cared about the central relationship to begin with.