Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Movie Review: The Great Darkened Days

The Great Darkened Days *** / *****
Directed by: Maxime Giroux.
Written by: Simon Beaulieu and Maxime Giroux and Alexandre Laferrière.
Starring: Martin Dubreuil (Philippe), Sarah Gadon (Helen), Romain Duris (Lester), Reda Kateb (Hector), Buddy Duress (Opponent), Cody Fern (Travelling Salesman), Lise Roy (Philippe's Mother), Soko (Rosie).
During WWII, before America has entered the war, a Quebec draft dodger, Phillippe (Martin Dubreuil) wanders through the American West, basically only finding misery wherever he turns. The Great Darkened Days is a surreal period piece with a sad clown at its center – a passive character who wanders through this world not fully comprehending what he sees – and what happens to him. It’s a bizarre film – a film that I have a feeling many people will hate, a few will love – and will more than likely confound anyone who sees it. Does it work? Not really – at the end of it, I have no idea what co-writer/director Maxime Giroux is saying about, well, anything. And yet it’s a weirdly fascinating film – bringing to mind Wim Wenders and David Lynch, but with a distinctly Quebecois feel. So maybe it doesn’t work – you won’t be bored.
The film opens with Philippe winning a Charlie Chaplin look-a-like contest, and winning the $10 grand prize. It’s just about the last piece of good luck he’ll have in the movie. Because from there, everyone he meets – no matter how nice they seem at first – really are not nice at all. There is one of his opponents in the contest (Buddy Duress) who will rob Philippe of his money. There is the talent scout (Reda Kateb) who seems very nice (and apparently discovered R.E.W. – as a bizarre scene finds Everybody Hurts blaring from a car radio in the 1940s, as Philippe dances around the desert like Chaplin) – who picks our hero up at the side of the road, and leaves at a place he says he will find help. He won’t – but he will meet Helen (Sarah Gadon), who takes him into her home, and will feed him a hot meal and give him a place to stay – but also has a woman tied up who she treats quite literally like a dog (Soko). Then there is Lester (Romain Duris) who runs some sort of bizarre human trafficking ring. You know you’re in bad shape when perhaps the nicest guy you meet is a travelling cigarette salesman (Cody Fern).
There are surreal touches throughout The Great Darkened Days that let you know that while this seems like the 1940s in our timeline, perhaps it isn’t. The R.E.M. song that blares out of the radio is the moment where you either decide to role with this film, or fight it tooth and nail the rest of the way. The moment right after with Patton’s voice coming blaring out the radio talking about war (and I think it’s actually George C. Scott as Patton) takes things a little further. There’s also a moment when Philippe goes to sleep in the desert in the middle of summer, and wakes up under a giant pile of snow. Or, of course, the human dog. You could extend this a little farther in saying that for the American West, there is sure a lot of French people around – but perhaps that’s just because the film is from Quebec.
I am really at a loss to come up with a reason what Giroux and company are saying with this film. In a way, it’s a Job story, with our hero suffering through one trial after another – but for what purpose, who knows? Perhaps it’s just a way of punishing Philippe for dodging the draft – for not going to war for his country, or the filmmaker’s way of saying that war may be hell, but so regular life. You won’t escape unscathed. Perhaps its just surreal for the sake of being surreal. Your guess is as good as mine.
What I will say is that the film is endlessly fascinating. The direction by Giroux is impressive – this is a period film on a budget, but the details are great. The photography – which ranges from the wide open, bright spaces of the desert, to an extended sequence that is basically all darkness is great – leading up to a final image as beautiful as it is confounding. The supporting performances are all aces as well – no one more so that Sarah Gadon (who has quietly become one of my favorite actresses – almost in Canadian content like the Cronenberg films Cosmopolis and Maps to Stars, Villeneuve’s final film before going Hollywood - Enemy - or the TV show Alias Grace) who is so chipper and friendly it’s creepy, even before you meet Rosie. Martin Dubreuil’s performance in the lead is interesting – he is a passive character, we never really learn much about him – not even why he dodged the drafted (was he a coward? A pacifist? Is there another reason?). Other than that dance sequence, he doesn’t show his comedic chops that would have won him that contest at the beginning – and even then, he looks as sad and miserable as he does the rest of the time. But his face says a lot.
I guess, in the end, you’re left with the question as to whether this bizarre journey the movie takes us on is worth the destination of nowhere where we actually end up. That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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