Denys Arcand: Where history meets cinema


Denys Arcand says it was ‘sheer serendipity’ that brought him to filmmaking.

‘I was a film buff, I liked the idea of filmmaking a lot,’ says the 68-year-old Oscar winner. ‘But in the early ’60s it didn’t seem a reasonable way to earn a living in Canada. The only way to do it would be to get on at the NFB, and they weren’t really hiring. On a lark, I went there for a summer job. I’d done an MA in history, and the day I went, they’d just got an order from the government to do a series on the history of Canada for the schools. That was my key to entering the Film Board. That would lead to a contract and more permanent work.’

Arcand would make some robust documentaries while at the NFB, including one that would get him into notorious trouble. With On est au coton (1976), he would delve into the textile business in Quebec, but Coton ruffled so many feathers that the NFB backed away from releasing the film, suppressing it for six years. (That film, along with Arcand’s earlier NFB doc work, has recently been released in a box set by the board.)

And while Arcand acknowledges that early documentary filmmaking experience as crucial in developing his directorial eye, he also says there was a downside to it.

‘It’s a plus and it’s a minus. ‘Plus’ in a sense that when you do doc films you really are observing reality, you’re immersing yourself in it. So we’re very good in Canada at this observational form of filmmaking,’ he says. ‘At the same time, I think this hinders our imagination. I think if we suffer from anything in Canadian filmmaking – and I’m including myself in this – we’re a bit weak on dreams and imagination. We’re not good at letting ourselves go. We’re good at realistic observation.’

And yes, for the record, Arcand laments the cuts to the NFB. ‘But like any federal bureaucracy, I saw it decline even while I was there. It got bloated and filled with people who had nothing to do with filmmaking. The civil servants always win. They swamp the place, like blue algae in a lake.’

Arcand says one of his earliest thrills as a filmmaker came with his second fiction feature, Réjeanne Padovani (1973), when it was invited to Cannes. ‘A big magazine gave me a full page in France. After the festival, my film was being shown in a cinema in Paris in the Left Bank. I walked by and there was [iconic French actress] Delphine Seyrig in line to see it. Wow! She was there with her boyfriend at the time, Sami Frey. Who knows? Maybe she hated the film, but I like to think that she liked it.’

But for all those high moments, Arcand also experienced lengthy dry spells of professional frustration. In particular, he points to the dozen years between 1974 and 1986 as especially rough. ‘There seemed to be no way for me to make a film. At one point I wrote a script and took it to the Canadian Film Development Corporation [predecessor of Telefilm Canada], and they okayed it. I started casting and working on the script. Then they said they had another project in the works from Gilles Carle and that he was the right one to do it. So it was over. That was just awful.’

1986 would mark a triumphant return to the big screen for Arcand as Le déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire) wowed critics and audiences alike. It also brought Arcand his first Oscar nomination.

‘This film basically saved my life,’ says Arcand. ‘I had been 12 years without a film. This film had to work, otherwise I would have been condemned to television hell for the rest of my life. It did very well at Cannes, it opened the Toronto International Film Festival, and then was nominated for an Oscar. That made me much more secure as a filmmaker. I was 45, so it was a key point. The success of Déclin was one of the most important things in my life.’

At a glance, Arcand’s filmography looks almost bipolar, especially with fickle film critics. He went from media darling (with Déclin, Jésus de Montréal and Les invasions barbares) to bastard child (Love and Human Remains, Stardom, Days of Darkness) from one film to the next, and Arcand concedes that his relationship with the press is thorny and curious.

‘This is a mystery to me,’ Arcand says of his relationship with the media. ‘It’s so strange. I don’t have an explanation for this. From my point of view, I’m always the same guy and I make the films the same way from the same budget, often with the same crew. I take all my films seriously and work so hard on them, and then they heap abuse on me. Why? I’m the same person!’

Arcand says a certain mythology has grown up around his personal life. Married to producer Denise Robert – they accepted their Oscar(s) together for Les invasions barbares – Arcand says he’s always tickled to read reports that he spends all his time skiing or golfing, depending on the season. ‘As if I spend all my time there! I do enjoy these things, and I am something of a jock, which is rare for a filmmaker, though Howard Hughes was an amazing golfer and Woody Allen plays tennis. If you look at the number of films I’ve made, though, you’ll see there’s no way I could have spent all that time skiing or golfing. I spent my time in editing rooms.’

But Arcand also credits a journalist with a key revelation about his own life’s work. ‘About six years ago a German journalist took me totally off guard. He said to me, ‘Of course, you only have one subject. Your films are all about the same thing: they’re about the absence of God.’ That really struck me. I’d never thought of it before, but it was totally true.’

Arcand is hard at work on his next script, which he won’t reveal anything about beyond the fact that the protagonist is an architect.

Does Quebec’s most honored filmmaker have any advice for aspiring newcomers to the field? ‘I don’t ever give advice. Because it’s useless. The environment is so different from when I was starting out. Talent always rises. Sometimes it takes longer, sometimes it’s more instantaneous. I don’t think advice serves anything. I hope the best for them. They’ll find a way.’


1963: Joins the National Film Board’s French-language production branch in Montreal
1970: Completes On est au cotton (We Work in Cotton), which is so controversial it’s suppressed by NFB brass for six years
1986: Le déclin de l’empire américain is the first Quebec film to open the Toronto International Film Festival; lands Arcand an Oscar nomination (a first for Canada in the best foreign-language category) and sweeps Genies
1989: Jésus de Montréal earns Arcand a second Oscar nom and the Jury Prize at Cannes. Again sweeps Genies
1993: Directs Love and Human Remains, his first film in English, which is critically panned
2003: Executes one of the greatest comebacks in cinematic history with Les invasions barbares, a sequel to Déclin that wins awards at Cannes, three Césars, six Genies, six Jutras and an Oscar (for best foreign-language film)
2005: Made a Companion of the Order of Canada