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Three directors: Denys Arcand.

Director and writer. Born, Deschambault, Quebec, 1941. While Arcand is now firmly positioned as one of Canada's handful of "star" directors, it wasn't long ago that he worried about ending up in the Sally Ann visible from the room where he was writing Le declin de l'empire americain. Before the huge success of this breakthrough film, Arcand had been labelled as an unbankable troublemaker, the kind of filmmaker who made politically explosive documentaries like On est au coton. In the mid 1980s, although he had won acclaim for a string of irreverent fiction features and a couple of mainstream hits-in-Quebec, this so-called agent provocateur was finding it hard to make a living in the movie business.

Arcand's films portray a world so irredeemably corrupt, he has been accused of being a cynic and a nihilist. However, his movies also convey inherent values, expressed with wit and insight. "I can't bear people who don't want to see what appears to me to be reality," Arcand once told Cinema Canada. "I don't know why. I've always been that seems to me that the first attribute of humanity is intelligence."

Having spent his childhood in a riverside village, Arcand moved to Montreal and attended Jesuit school. In 1962, after spending time in the University of Montreal's theatre groups, he and some of his friends (Denis Heroux and Stephane Venne, with the assistance of established NFBers Michel Brault, Gilles Groulx and Bernard Gosselin) made a film about student life, Seul ou avec d'autres. Then, like most budding filmmakers, Arcand went to work for the NFB, shooting commissioned documentaries that didn't cause much of a stir until the Board refused to release On est au coton, his gritty, angry expose of Quebec's textile industry. Although copies were circulated clandstinely, the ban lasted six years.

When Arcand turned to fiction, his work began to modulate outrage with the amused disdain of a sophisticated observer. In Rejeanne Padovani, a sleazy construction mogul has his unfaithful wife murdered during a party and entombs her under the asphalt of a just-completed highway. Arcand expresses shock at the depravity of his characters, but he is aware of the layer of comedy they provide.

By the time he directed Le declin, which picked up the International Film Critics' Prize at Cannes, nine Genies, an Oscar nomination, and remains one of the most profitable Canadian movies ever made, Arcand admitted that he felt affection, as well as amusement toward his self-deceptive, philandering characters. In fact, his biting humour can turn on a dime into passionate intensity. 1989's Jesus de Montreal is perhaps Arcand's richest, most rewarding creation. In it he orchestrates perfectly timed mood swings between irreverence and reverence, detached irony and dark tragedy.

In Le declin and Jesus, Arcand mastered the unobtrusive visual style and rapid pacing he admires in classic American moviemaking. His approach to filmmaking is straightforward, understated and laconic, no matter how bizarre the content. In this, Arcand resembles another cool, witty minimalist who swam through powerful currents, the Spanish master, Luis Bunuel.
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Author:Maurie Alioff
Publication:Take One
Date:Jun 22, 1996
Previous Article:100 great and glorious years of Canadian cinema.
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