Friday, November 7, 2014

An Eye for Beauty (Le règne de la beauté)




Actor Éric Bruneau and Director Denys Arcand, mirror images
 







Abbaye Val Notre-Dame, designed by architect Pierre Thibault
 







Abbaye Val Notre-Dame, designed by architect Pierre Thibault
 

















AN EYE FOR BEAUTY (Le règne de la beauté)         B                     
Canada  (102 mi)  2014  d:  Denys Arcand

And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself
Well...How did I get here?

Letting the days go by
Let the water hold me down
Letting the days go by
Water flowing underground
Into the blue again
After the money's gone
Once in a lifetime
Water flowing underground

And you may ask yourself
How do I work this?
And you may ask yourself
Where is that large automobile?
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife

Talking Heads - Once In A Lifetime - YouTube (5:41), 1980 song from Stop Making Sense (1984)

Quite unlike any other opening, the director prefaces this film with a few introductory remarks about Canada, his home, claiming it is the most peaceful nation on earth, that there has never been any wars fought on its territory, no revolutions, no leftist governments, and that from other people’s perspective, a routine uneventful life may seem boring in comparison, reflected perhaps in Canadian art, literature, and even films.  Shot over the course of a year in order to capture all four seasons to their fullest, Canada is known for their long cold winters, where life’s problems intrude here as elsewhere.  Whatever autobiographical claims this film may have, it feels a bit embellished, using something of a Hollywood hunk to play a much younger version of an artist (as a stand-in for the director), Éric Bruneau as Luke, a successful Canadian architect in his thirties living in Baie-Saint-Paul in the Charlevoix region of Québec in a spectacular home in the woods overlooking the St. Lawrence River that he designed himself.  Completing the dream and making it even more perfect is his ravishingly beautiful blonde wife, Stéphanie (Mélanie Thierry), who keeps herself fit as a sports instructor and a lover of all sports.  While they are an idyllic couple living the perfect life, their story is told in flashback where a much older Luke happens to run across a mysterious woman from his past.  More intrigue ensues.  The rhythm of the film, however, is built around the comforts of an upper-middle class bourgeois existence as part of a super sophisticate Québec elite, sharing meals with friends, including lesbian couple Isabelle and Melissa (Marie-Josée Croze and Geneviève Boivin-Roussy), accompanied by only the finest wines, where Luke drives a flashy red Thunderbird, sings in the church choir, while playing tennis, golf, hockey, hunting, or skiing (shot in slow-mo montage) depending on the season, and even finds time to grow his own pot in the nearby woods, imported, no less, from Humboldt County, California.  One begins to appreciate the opening remarks from Arcand, as this does begin to feel like the idyllic picture postcard version of Canadian living as reflected in a glossy magazine spread. 

Luke is invited to sit upon an architectural jury for a project in Toronto, joking to others that he needs the money while actually expressing a certain contempt, suggesting this is beneath his dignity, until he shares a private moment with another woman on the panel, the English-speaking Lindsay (Melanie Merkosky), who eventually invites him to come stay (sleep) with her in her cottage on Centre Island, the largest of the Toronto Islands, offering a skyline view of the city over the water, taking a short ferry to get there.  While she’s obviously more invested than he is, he nonetheless plays the part, obviously loving the idea of being pursued, where it’s in the code for gallantry, one supposes, that an honorable man never turns down a woman’s offer.  Perhaps more surprisingly, both profess their love while knowing little to nothing about each other.  Having already seen the sexy vivaciousness of his wife, both seen having sex in the nude on an isolated beach during a holiday camping trip, this seems like a step down into something far more conventional, as if it comes with the territory of aspiring artists, where there’s not an ounce of chemistry between them.  Still it’s a bit surprising that his view is to feel entitled, as this romantic escapade repeats itself in time, if only because he doesn’t have the moral fortitude to say no.  Adding to the dramatic arc, Stéphanie goes into an inexplicable swoon of depression where she literally loses her bearings, and even tries to throw herself off a ski lift in a panic attack.  In another off-kilter moment she throws herself at Melissa in a flurry of kisses, which she doesn’t exactly reject.  Nonetheless, despite this suicidal episode, the changing moods, and his wife’s spiraling descent into despair, Luke decides to play the gallivanting lover again when Lindsay is passing through Québec.  Because of the devastating deterioration of his wife’s health, one thinks he’ll have the decency to stay, but instead he behaves like a male in heat, giving little thought to the negative possibilities, choosing his own destiny based upon spur of the moment interests.  Arcand films this scene in the suspense thriller mode, offering ominous implications of what awaits him upon his return, as if his conscience is weighing heavily upon him. 

While it’s highly unconventional to present such a reprehensible portrait of male chauvinism, especially when combined with career success, as Luke’s professional career takes off during this period, but to the viewer, despite his Hollywood handsome good looks, he couldn’t be more unsympathetic and loathsome.  In contrast, however, he designs some of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful homes one has ever seen, with clean, modernistic interiors usually offering giant window views that coexist with the natural world outside, where he’s designed a dream house overlooking the river for one of his oldest contracting friends Roger (Michel Forget), but before he can live to appreciate it, the poor man learns he’s dying of cancer.  Luke spends many hours visiting him in a hospital corridor, where he’s not even assigned to a room due to overcrowding conditions, offering a devastating critique of the once highly lauded Canadian healthcare system, instead he withers away on a bed in a crowded hallway until he begs to be allowed to die in the beauty and splendor of his own home.  Because of the spectacular beauty of these meticulously designed homes, the film bears some resemblance to Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (La Grande Bellezza), which captures the rapturous beauty of art, but also the callous emptiness of a human species that has lost the ability to appreciate its elegance and grandeur.  Arcand finds a similar connection between meaning and desire, drawing an appreciation for those people we love, and the things we own, showing a desire to possess both, where the elite sophisticated class loves to surround themselves with objects of beauty, including, as they get older, trophy wives on their arms, a reminder of their own lost youth, while striving for immortality by creating works of art that will stand the test of time.  By the end we discover the man is a serial philanderer, making a profession out of lying while concealing his secret affairs, for which there are few, if any consequences, supposedly the benefits of success, while he’s also the creator of some of the most astonishing masterworks of modern architecture.  Gorgeously shot by Nathalie Moliavko-Vistozky, including some rather stunning shots of the St. Lawrence River in the changing seasons of the year, Arcand uses buildings designed by Canadian architect Pierre Thibault, including a series of images shown over the classical piano music playing during the end credits of buildings that he designed, many of which are simply awe-inspiring.   

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