After decades of films with increasingly doom-laden titles (The Decline of the American Empire, The Barbarian Invasions, Days of Darkness), Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand has set down his final Testament.
The 82-year-old Oscar-winning social satirist’s new comedy of that name, which has already pulled in over $1.5-million at the box office in his home province, centres on protests that erupt over an old colonialist mural in a retirement home depicting Jacques Cartier meeting with Indigenous leaders.
The movie reunites Arcand with his muse Rémy Girard, playing a lonely archivist named Jean-Michel Bouchard who observes the culture-war parade from a perplexed distance while entertaining a late-in-life romance with the stressed-out Suzanne (Sophie Lorain), who operates the home.
The Globe and Mail’s J. Kelly Nestruck spoke with Arcand over Zoom ahead of Testament’s release in Canada outside Quebec.
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First of all, congratulations on the film – I went in really bracing myself and ended up quite loving it.
Why were you bracing yourself?
I heard about the premise – and there’s sometimes a bit of a disconnect between English Canada and French Canada on these issues. You get into that in the film itself: The anglophone media descend on this retirement home to wag their fingers. Are you bracing yourself for Testament reaching into the rest of Canada?
No, not really. I’m just hoping for the best.
What makes the film avoid too-controversial territory is that the anti-mural protesters turn out to not actually be Indigenous.
That’s the whole idea. Indigenous people have tough things on their hands. They have major political problems, major social problems. Old paintings in a retirement home are not their main concern in life.
Your film does venture into real Indigenous communities. Jean-Michel visits the Mohawk community of Kahnawake and watches the lacrosse team playing and then there’s also a scene up in in the north in Salluit. I can’t really recall in your oeuvre if you have grappled with Quebec-Indigenous relations to this extent.
No, I’ve never touched on it. I don’t know why. This is the first time.
Well, to me, the positive thing of these controversies around Indigenous representation in art that inspired your film, is that we are seeing you explore some of that in your film. It’s a richer portrait of Quebec.
It was the first occasion I had to talk, in a sense, about myself because I played lacrosse in Kahnawake for four or five years. When I was a teenager, we went there, we went on a bus, we had a game, we talked a little bit – not a whole lot because they speak English. But it was part of my life.
Your film moves to a satire of more mainstream Quebec culture when a group of older nationalists protest outside of the home. I saw you drawing a line between the young people who are there thinking they’re doing the right thing by protesting this mural and the protesters from la Révolution tranquille who also had questions regarding culture and who was in charge of telling stories.
Of course, that’s why as soon as the first protestors leave, these ones come in. Earlier in the film, my hero says: “Every night on television we see people protesting, they protest about absolutely everything.” Today, coming into this office, I was surrounded by protesters because the civil servants in Quebec are all on strike today. Everything is stopped. Countries are becoming ungovernable. If you look at the United States, then it’s absolutely absolutely evident: you can’t find a Speaker of the house.
The film is being discussed as ‘anti-woke’ – but that’s not really what the film is about.
No, not at all. I don’t believe in films – unless you’re fighting a dictatorship – being against, against people or against movements. I’m trying to describe the society around me. I believe that this situation is truthful.
You do touch on the changing gender landscape and the linguistic challenges regarding non-binary identity in French in the film. I was listening to you talk about this in an interview – and I didn’t realize that your own son is transgender. You said he wasn’t a consultant on the film, but did that affect your depiction?
Consultation is something that sociologists do or the political parties do. When you’re writing, it’s supposed to come from inside of you. My relationship with my son is excellent. We talk frequently. But I don’t have to consult him. I am somewhat puzzled now by the number of young people who want to change sex. What does this mean? It’s not that I’m against it or for it or whatever. I just wanted this to be part of what I was talking about.
I heard your son is in the movie. I’m not sure which character he was.
Do you remember after the nationalist scene where they say “Oh, this is terrible, the Quebec art is being destroyed” and the reporter says, “Of course, we had a very different reaction from the Université de Quebec à Montreal students in digital art.” He is in the middle with them saying: “Come on, this is a dead white man, who cares?”
You’ve called this movie Testament … Are you that dead white man? Is this is your final film?
I am an almost-dead or dying white man. But we’ll see. if I’m still in good health, two years from now and I’ve got an idea, I might do something else.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
FILM REVIEW: TESTAMENT
Testament is Denys Arcand’s against-all-grains old-man missive about the confusion and contradictions of today’s culture, but more good-natured than grumpy.
Archivist Jean-Michel Bouchard (Rémy Girard) lives a life of increasing perplexity in a retirement home run by beaten-down bureaucrat Suzanne (Sophie Lorain), who faces fun-house mirror versions of contemporary challenges – i.e. government orders to diversify the home’s demographics and enforce neutral language regarding newly non-binary seniors (a bit that works better in super-gendered French than in English subtitles).
But the home’s biggest headache involves a fresco depicting Jacques Cartier being grandly greeted by unnamed Indigenous men and women – and which leads protesters to set up across the street.
While the film’s tonal shifts between Mad magazine caricature and melancholy monologues about the twilight of life can perplex, Arcand wiggles around the most sensitive subject matter to nail his satire at the political-party level (and kill it with a cameo by Quebec theatre icon Robert Lepage as a culture minister in a convertible) as he asks what about the past and future is worth fighting for.
And a plotline about Suzanne reconnecting with estranged family, a theme Arcand used to emotionally anchor his Oscar-winner The Barbarian Invasions, succeeds again here thanks to Lorain’s superbly aching performance.