Denys Arcand’s latest is hard to peg

The Oscar-winning Québécois director’s Le règne de la beauté is a beautiful and peculiar film.

Le règne de la beauté 2
Le règne de la beauté

Denys Arcand had one of Quebec film’s great hero-to-zero moments when he followed up 2004’s Oscar-winning Les invasions barbares with 2007’s critically savaged L’âge des ténèbres. The truth is, though he’s made some of the greatest films in Quebec and/or Canadian cinema history, he’s shown himself just as able to produce a big stinky turd of a movie.

So where does his latest, Le règne de la beauté, stand? It’s such a strange film that it’s kind of hard to say.

le regne de la beaute_onesheet_FINAL.inddÉric Bruneau (from Xavier Dolan’s Les amours imaginaires and Laurence Anyways) stars as architect Luc Sauvageau. The film begins with him in late middle age, accepting a prestigious award in Paris. After leaving the stage, he’s approached by Lindsay (Melanie Merkosky), a woman from his past whose presence clearly throws him off.

Then we flash back to Luc’s life as a younger man. He lives in the Charlevoix region with his wife Stéphanie (Mélanie Thierry) and, struggling to make a living, swallows his pride to take a boring job on a jury in Toronto. There he meets Lindsay and they begin an affair. Meanwhile, Stéphanie’s mental health begins to deteriorate, and various dramas bubble up in the couple’s group of friends.

Arcand has never been one to shy away from Major Themes, and the title suggests pretty clearly that he’s trying to make some kind of statement about beauty. Certainly, the film has a lot of really good-looking people in gorgeous homes full of amazingly designed objects, and the stunning Charlevoix scenery is exploited to full effect. It’s also full of mock-epic montages of the characters playing golf, tennis and skiing (with the swelling strings and slow motion, I can only assume the intent was satirical — the effect is comic either way).

Le règne de la beautéThere’s a long tradition in art cinema of dramas in which not all that much happens except bourgeois people talking about their various infidelities and neuroses. At its best, Le règne de la beauté fits in this tradition. But there’s something about the film that feels hollow. Maybe it’s the stilted dialogue, the strangely detached performances, or the way major plot threads are either blatantly dropped or tied up in ridiculously convenient ways. The themes may be big, but take them away and you’re mainly left with design porn.

Because Arcand is capable of greatness, I want to leave open the possibility that he’s making a heavy commentary that I just didn’t get. But I’m not sure. People have told me they read reviews to know if a film is good or bad. But this one presents a philosophical riddle: if a film is neither good nor bad, what is it? Le règne de la beauté is definitely not bad per se, but it falls well short of good. ■

Le règne de la beauté opens today