L’Âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness) Commentary

Denys Arcand’s 2007 feature film, L’Âge des ténèbres  (Days of Darkness) evokes the classic James Thurber story, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” which describes the imaginary world created by a little man who has allowed tyranny to rule his life. In the Thurber story (and 1947 movie of the same title), the tyranny is embodied in a domineering wife, the banality in meaningless, humdrum routine. Taking Thurber’s story as his starting point, Arcand re-invents this character study by matching it with a biting satire on life in the wireless world.

Jean Marc LeBlanc (Marc Labrèche) is an insignificant civil servant in a faceless government office. His job is to refuse all claims that come before him. Each day he sees a sad parade of injured, frightened, and poverty-stricken citizens seeking redress from situations beyond their control. Each day, it is his duty to explain how they fall between jurisdictions; or have unfortunately applied after the deadline; or are, in fact, personally culpable for their own misadventures.

At work, Jean Marc is continually reminded of the extent to which rules and regulations are impinging on personal liberties in the name of health, safety and security.  In Arcand’s Montréal of the near future, all commuters wear facemasks anywhere outside their place of work. Workers are not allowed to smoke within one mile of government buildings. Guards and sniffer dogs patrol the area to ensure that the regulation is enforced. His supervisor, Carole Bigras-Bourque (Caroline Néron) spends most of her time spying on her employees and making sure that they follow all the rules. When she hears Jean Marc joke that his black colleague has been working like a “nigger,” she escalates a full-scale enquiry into the flouting of a specific regulation forbidding the use of that word. For the privilege of working in this stultifying atmosphere, Jean Marc must drive and take two forms of pass transit for an hour and a half each day in order to get to the centre of town from his heavily mortgaged, faceless, suburban home.

Jean Marc is surrounded by dispirited, angry adults, whether on the freeway or in his office.  And his own family is turned off and tuned in. His daughters are never without a mobile device in their hands; they could not hold a conversation with their father, even if they were motivated to do so. His wife, Sylvie, (Sylvie Léonard) is a workaholic real estate saleswoman; she is never without a cell phone glued to her ear. She has lost all interest in her husband and reminds Jean Marc at regular intervals that she is the third most successful real estate salesperson in Canada. Sylvie is so disengaged with her marriage and family that she does not pause in her telephone conversations to heat up microwave meals or discover how her husband and daughters are doing. At night, in bed, when Jean Marc tries to tell his wife that he is worried about his mother, who is dying of senile dementia, Sylvie ignores him while she continues to make deals on the phone.

In frustration, Jean Marc leaps out of bed and goes out to the little garden shed that is his refuge. The minute he opens the door, he is enveloped by love and acceptance. His central dream woman, Véronica Star (Diane Kruger), welcomes him to a cozy chat by a log fire. She sympathises with him and tells him what a good son he is. Throughout the film, each unpleasant or demeaning thing that happens to Jean Marc is accompanied by a related daydream. When his boss reports him for using the banned word, “nigger,” he dreams that she is hauled off by Nubian slaves to a “fate worse than death.” At his tribunal for using a banned word, he imagines that he is a Ninja, leaping to the top of the Board Room table, advancing on the Manager, and slicing his head off in one blow; the resulting fountain of blood is extremely satisfying to Jean Marc. In all of his dreams, Jean Marc is famous and well liked and pursued by a journalist who is sexually aroused by important people. But, gradually, his dream women begin to meet one another in his daydreams and cooperate to punish his female boss… just for him. They are developing agendas of their own.

A clever moment in this very clever film occurs after Jean Marc decides to date a woman who participates in medieval role-playing events. “Béatrice de Savoie” (Macha Néron) is looking for a “consort.” Dozens of people participate in this real-life fantasy by dressing up and taking part in jousting competitions. Jean Marc is completely uncomfortable with the all-too-physical reification of their dreams in these weekend events. He tells “Béatrice” that it isn’t for him.

Then, in a humorous post-modern moment, the daydream girls begin to comment on Jean Marc’s real life.  In a daydream sequence where Jean Marc is supposed to participate in his favourite game show, only to find that it has been cancelled, Véronica asks the producer who she is and where she is, if the show has been cancelled. He responds that she will find out in the next scene. When Sylvie decides to walk out on Jean Marc and the girls in pursuit of her career in Toronto, his ensuing despondency arouses the wrath of the daydream girls. Véronica asks why she has put in so much time on a man who doesn’t know what he wants; she wonders aloud why she is always the fantasy woman of losers. She has her professional pride, after all.

This is the beginning of the end of Jean Marc’s fantasy life. He literally walks away from his tiny perfect life and goes to a cottage that once belonged to his father. He cooks real food, watches a neighbour who is fishing, and helps older people nearby to tend their gardens. On one fateful day, he summons up each of his daydream women and wishes her farewell. All of them disappear in a puff of smoke, except for Véronica, who leaves in style, like the Lady of the Lake. We last see Jean Marc peeling apples, while a neighbour woman in the next room makes jelly. There is not a sound except that of the knife on the peel and the jelly dripping in a cheesecloth bag.

L’Âge des ténèbres  (Days of Darkness) was nominated in four categories at the Genies, for a Directors Guild of Canada award, and in five categories for the Jutra awards. It won a Jutra in 2008 for Best Make-up.

Evelyn Ellerman