[NOTE: I wrote this review in 2008 after seeing the film at the Palm Springs International Film Festival, expecting to publish it when it was released in the US. However, the film never got a release. I’ve often wondered what happened to it in all those years. Now it is available on AMC+ and IFC Unlimited (both accessible through Prime Video Channels and both offer a one week free trial.)]
Days of Darkness is the concluding film of the Denys Arcand trilogy that also includes The Decline of the American Empire and Barbarian Invasions. (It could be argued that Jesus of Montreal is also part of this group of films. I’m unsure about the more recent The Fall of the American Empire, which I haven’t seen.) The two earlier films shared common actors and characters. Two of the characters from those films show up in minor roles in this film, but by and large, this is a very different kind of film from the first two. The titles of the film harken back to the Roman Empire. The decadence leads to weakness that allows the barbarians to invade and bring about the Dark Ages. As a Canadian on the border of the American empire, Arcand seems to be saying that he sees the same sort of process happening in current society. He may well be right. What really connects Days of Darkness with the trilogy is that The Barbarian Invasions is about trying to escape death; this film is about trying to escape life.
Henry Thoreau wrote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” That certainly describes Jean-Mark in Days of Darkness. Jean-Marc leads a pretty boring life. His world is grey – his house, his car, the sky. His marriage isn’t happy. His children aren’t happy. He’s a bureaucrat who spends his day listening to unhappy people. But he has his imagination. Like Walter Mitty, Jean-Marc spends much of his time in his daydreams – but this is Walter Mitty as if he had been written by Woody Allen and Hugh Hefner. Jean-Marc’s fantasy life is not just an escape; it is a critique of the many ways the world has lost its way.
The real world of this film is nearly as surreal as Jean-Marc’s imaginary world. The great bureaucracy where he works is housed in Montreal’s Olympic Stadium. It is literally a bureaucratic maze. His co-workers have to take classes in how to laugh. The problems he deals with each day are unbelievable, and yet each is an actual case. (My favorite is a man who was walking on the side walk when a car hit a streetlight. The streetlight fell on the man, who lost his legs. The city charges everyone involved in the destruction of public property, so he has to pay for half the streetlight.) There is rarely anything he can actually do. One of the lines that sums up this world is “You’re wasting your time; it’s pointless.”
In his dreams Jean-Marc is in control. He is the lover of a famous movie star and a TV news reporter. He solves the world’s problems. He is famous and rich and happy. Those who are his nemeses are dealt with harshly (but of course they deserve it).
The film reflects the malaise that so often becomes part of life as we go through the same routines day after day. Not only our personal lives, but our corporate life just seems to be one repetition after another. Consider the skepticism with which we greet political campaigns. Do any of the candidates live up to the dreams we have for someone to lead us? Following Arcand’s post-empire metaphor, the meaninglessness of staged political debates or of reality television or blogs that do nothing but blather reflect a world that is as devoid of wisdom as those centuries before the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.
If we follow the world into this malaise, it is indeed pointless and we are wasting our time. Instead all the Jean-Marcs in the world (and that includes us all) need to find a life that has meaning beyond the limits of our minds.