One of the best films of the year, Days of Darkness takes what could be a difficult and tedious subject -- getting old -- and makes if poignant and gripping by filtering it all through the prism of one man's declining years as a sexual being. French-Canadian actor Marc Labreche plays Jean-Marc, a Walter Mitty sort with thick, coke-bottle glasses and a mousy speaking voice, who has a mundane office-cubicle existence, helping injured people file claims against the state in what seems to be a near-futuristic, independent state of Quebec.

It's hard to say whether the film intends to make a strong statement on that possibility, but if it does, then it must be decidedly negative. This futuristic Quebec is terribly mismanaged, with taxpayer money being spent on organizations like Humor-Quebec, which employs a man to go around to offices like Jean-Marc's and instruct people on how to laugh. Jean-Marc is only slightly conscious during these kinds of office seminars, however -- he's focused on his fantasy life, which intrudes on reality whenever he has a few minutes to nod off.

His fantasy file is thick with subjects -- there's his blond supervisor at the office, who calls him to the carpet for every infraction and on whom he seeks revenge by crafting for her a fantasy scene that is, to his mind, exceedingly cruel. Specifically, he imagines her as being made the sex slave of several large, black men who pull her around by a choker. Then there's an anonymous fantasy brunette who acts as a sexual component to Jean-Marc's various 'success fantasies.'
In each one, he plays a powerful man and she's a woman who wrangles a few seconds alone with him only to beg for sex. Then there's my personal favorite -- Diane Kruger. Jean-Marc is obsessed with actress Diane Kruger, and saves his most romantic scenarios for them to share. Denys Arcand brilliantly fleshes out each of these fantasy girls with their own reality, despite them being created by and for Jean-Marc. At one point, we see Diane Kruger approaching the door of Jean-Marc's house, and having to stop to sign an autograph and answer a question about working with Brad Pitt.

This would be good for laughs even if the movie had no higher ambition, but it does. The longer it goes on, the more we worry for Jean-Marc. He's not a bad man, but he's a desperate man and somewhat weak -- kind of like a film-noir stooge who could be easily bowled over by a beautiful dame, should any ever show interest in him in the real world. As he begins to sink lower and lower into a morass of escapist fantasizing, and in turn becomes more alienated from his wife and children, we start to wonder if there's a way forward for him. What else does Jean-Marc have to look forward to, except another night with Diane Kruger or once again imagining what it would be like to be a guest on his favorite talk show? There's a long, heartbreaking passage in the film where he attempts to find an innovative solution to that question and ends up learning about the non-transferable nature of a fantasy life – the more intricate it is, the less likely someone else can share it.

In that crucial passage, Jean-Marc meets an attractive woman who frequents a Renaissance Fair, playing a running role as a princess searching for the perfect mate. All in the service of what he thinks of as the ultimate sexual payoff -- screwing a woman who is lost in a fantasy zone with him -- Jean Marc goes to great lengths to lose himself in the world of lords and ladies, and even goes so far as to put on medieval armor and joust with a fellow fake knight while someone off to the side chats on a cellphone. What is this guy thinking? The obvious answer, of course, is that he's just doing what men do -- testing their sexual prowess against what's possible to achieve and then using fantasy to pick up any slack. In Jean-Marc's case, there just happens to be a lot of slack. The mid-life crisis story is certainly nothing new, but anything can be new if it's done with skill and style, and Days of Darkness certainly is. The ending of this film was one of the saddest I can remember.