Days of Darkness, Denys Arcand's follow-up to the Oscar-nominated The Barbarian Invasions, isn't as smooth as that film -- but it's as bizarre and inventive a movie as you could ask for. Playing out of competition at Cannes, Days of Darkness is a perverse and busy mix of American Beauty, Brazil, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and many other influence that manages to include blunt drama, razor-sharp social commentary, broad comedy, sexual frankness and sweeping musical numbers. It's like that slightly lumpy knit sweater at the craft fair: it may not be machine-manufactured perfect, but you can tell just by looking at it that it was made by a human being.
Played by popular Quebecois comedian Marc Labrèche, Jean-Marc LeBlanc (I don't think the surname's a coincidence) is a 44-year-old bureaucrat, living a soulless life in a post-modern version of Quebec, struggling with a dead marriage, distracted kids, a mind-numbing job and all the discontents of life. The radio blares news of war and pestilence; when the kids are dropped off at school, they take off their Ipods, get out of the car and put on facemasks. Jean-Marc then goes off to work at a gigantic, inhuman, crumbling structure (it's actually Montreal's infamous Olympic stadium, a nice in-joke for Canadians) to aid -- or, rather, not aid -- Quebecois citizens in negotiating a labyrinthine bureaucracy that hinders more than it helps. Jean-Marc's wife (Sylvie Léonard) is obsessed with her work ("I'm the third-best suburban realtor in Canada!"); his mother dying slowly, falling into Alzheimer's.
We don't open with any of this, though; we open with Jean-Marc's fantasy life -- full of operatic sequences (featuring Rufus Wainright and Diane Kruger) and sexual reveries -- and we soon realize that Jean-Marc's fantasy life is just as unsatisfying as his real one. His sex fantasies are pretty rote, even to him; his dreamgirls can't help but comment ironically on his own lack of imagination, how his libido's been shaped and confined by a thousand movies. (As he fantasizes about being with Kruger in the shower, she looks over her shoulder and comments: "The shower's a classicl you can see my bum, and a little of my breast - perfect for the American censors.") Jean-Marc can't imagine how he could change his life -- leave his wife? Quit his job? He can't make a decision. And soon, other people make decisions for him.
Days of Darkness is a little inside -- full of references to Quebecois culture and politics -- but it'll also work for anyone who's ever waited in line at the DMV, or gone blind from reading the small print on their taxes. Labrèche is a deadpan sad-sack in the film, but he's also got a wicked wit that shines through, like when he's brought before the language board at his work for using a casual-yet-charged phrase in conversation. He's informed that "Negro was made a non-word in 1999, along with Negress and Midget; preferred phrases are of equatorial origin and little person." His reply -- clever and sharp-- leaps out like a fencer's lunge.
When his marriage implodes, Jean-marc tries speed dating -- winding up with a woman (Macha Grenon) whose obsession with all things medieval is a bit disquieting ("Your décor's interesting. ..." "It's all from Lord of the Rings. ...") and leads to Jean-Marc reluctantly trapped at a Medieval Faire-style event. This section of the story is a bit uneven -- the slapstick feel is a jump from the urban-surrealist dry wit of the rest of the film -- but it also helps Jean-Marc come to a decision about his own fantasy life, leading to his convening a braintrust of all his sexualized fantasy figures -- the actress (Kruger), the reporter, his boss at work, his lesbian co-worker -- to come to terms with living instead of dreaming, and even that small victory comes with a reminder that all things fade. Days of Darkness isn't as good as Jesus of Montreal or The Barbarian Invasions, but even as a smaller film its made with a bold, broad, big intelligence that most films never attempt to reach for.