DENYS ARCAND - JESUS OF MONTREAL: A DISCUSSION
by RON BURNETT
Melbourne Sunday Herald: Melbourne, Australia June 29, 1990
Quebec filmmaker Denys Arcand has directed some two dozen documentary and feature films since 1963. It was not until 1986 that he gained international recognition with The Decline of the American Empire. His latest film, Jesus of Montreal, a Canada-France co-production, has attracted as much attention as The Decline winning, among others, the Jury Prize and the Ecumenical Prize at Cannes as well as a nomination for Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. Jesus of Montreal is a film about the re-staging of the Passion Play by a group of underemployed actors. As they rehearse and then perform the play, they discover not only their own fascination with the myth of Jesus but its extraordinary impact on modern culture.
Denys Arcand was interviewed in the high tech offices of Max Films on colourful St. Lawrence Blvd. in Montreal. He was asked whether Jesus of Montreal is generating more debate than the controversial The Decline of the American Empire. Which is a hotter topic among viewers, sex or religion? "Sex, obviously," was his unequivocal response.
"There has been very little controversy surrounding Jesus of Montreal. In fact, we have been surprised by the film's popularity in largely Protestant countries. The film played for months all over Great Britain and I have received many letters from viewers in Germany. Ironically, the film has had a cool reception in Catholic countries such as Spain and France, although one interesting phenomenon has been the detailed and often lengthy comments on the film by members of religious institutions! Even though religion is at the heart of modern life we tend not to talk about it, tend not to recognize its influence on us. What I discovered in making this film was the magic of a story which we all know and which we need to tell ourselves over and over again.
Arcand developed the idea for the film when he was auditioning actors for The Decline. One actor excused himself for sporting a beard. He explained that he was playing Jesus at night in the Passion Play while auditioning for commercials during the day. Arcand was struck by the irony and after he finished The Decline began to write about the contradiction between crass commercialism and spiritual values. "Consumerism may be the legacy of the eighties but there has got to be more to life than that. Jesus of Montreal is about a yearning for something else, a search for a sort of meaning." Arcand wants to communicate a personal vision of life, to make films which audiences can enjoy but which nevetheless treat important topics of the day with the seriousness which they deserve.
Once the production began, a certain momentum built up. As Arcand describes it, everyone on the crew found themselves overwhelmed by the power of the Passion Play and these emotions began to govern the look and the aesthetic of the film. "You know, there are so many Quebec films with major kitchen scenes that my set designer was delighted to be able to erect 25 wooden crosses atop Mount Royal in the centre of Montreal, adding deep red earth to the botanical green of the mountain in midsummer. My costume designer told me 'You want costumes, I'll give you costumes!' It's as if these people had been waiting to make this film for years. The magic was incredible! We finally had the chance to tell a story which we all knew, to reinterpret one of the basic myths of Western culture."
Jesus of Montreal is screening in over 40 countries but Arcand is at pains to explain its universal appeal because "the film is not a literal reconstruction of the Jesus myth and because it is set in Montreal, a city with no visible past to speak of." In the film, Daniel Coulombe, the main character, is approached to play Jesus in the annual re-staging of the Passion Play. Daniel gathers around him actors/followers who re-interpret the life of Jesus. As such the film works on two different levels: as cinema and as theatre. There is an audience for the play as there is the audience for the film. To Arcand's surprise both sets of audiences experience very strong emotions and degrees of identification with Lothaire Bluteau, who plays the role of Daniel. "The play is part of the film but often it seems to have a life of its own."
Regarding the casting of Bluteau , Arcand said "I knew it had to be him. There is no one else in Montreal who could have played that role. His physique, the fact that he is a little asexual, make him somewhat angelic. There was a joke on the set regarding a scene: if the scene when Jesus walks on water doesn't work very well, it doesn't matter, we'll ask Lothaire to walk on water and he will walk on water."
At one point in the film, when the lines have begun to blur between the actor within the film and the role Daniel is playing, he enters a television studio where a commerical is being filmed and destroys the cameras and monitors. Obvious biblical references are given a complexity synonymous with contemporary society. For Arcand, the media play a diabolical role in our culture and Daniel/Jesus becomes the medium for the exploration of that complexity. Arcand is fascinated with the tragedy and comedy of everyday life, the way the commonplace and the absurd co-exist "as in those supermarkets where one can find, within a ten metre radius, novels by Dostoyevsky, perfume, the Bible, pornographic videos, the complete works of Shakespeare, photos of the Earth shot from the moon, astrological predictions, posters of movie stars or Jesus, etc."
Arcand was asked whether his film is pessimistic or not. "Jesus Christ died on the cross. Isn't that after all a pessimistic message? Sure, he was killed but at least before that he said something of great importance and his voice has travelled across the centuries. My Jesus of Montreal also dies. But he tried to protest, to say something different and he nearly succeeded. That's why, at the end of the film, his eyes and his heart are donated for transplant. Things are always beginning again, life is a perpetual struggle and voices of protest must always be raised."
Arcand has received offers to direct films in Hollywood and in France but he has decided that his next project will focus on a more personal trauma, the recent death of his parents.
"There is something of me in all of my films. The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal mirror my own experiences with sexuality and religion. I grew up in rural Quebec. I was educated by the Jesuits and I have lived my adult life in a cosmpolitan city. I create characters who are the sum total of these experiences."
(Additional research by Martha Burnett)