Since they haven’t yet devised an Oscar for this category, let me nominate Canada’s Denys Arcand for the most obnoxious filmmaker in the world today. Arcand treats Big Subjects with insufferable glibness: He’s like a college sophomore who has decided he’s smarter than all his professors. His first film to achieve international prominence, The Decline of the American Empire (1986), was an epic, attitudinizing bull session in which eight intellectual characters sat around gabbing about sex. It sounded like a promising idea, except that the dialogue was phony to the core — a smorgasbord of fashionably cynical, smart-ass quips masquerading as ”truth.” The characters rode their feelings like bumper cars.
Now Arcand has turned from the erotic to the spiritual. His new movie, Jesus of Montreal, centers on a group of adventurous young actors who join forces to stage a radical updating of the Gospels. What’s so revolutionary about their concept? Well, the play is performed outdoors, at night, with the audience trudging around to different sites like spectators at a golf match; Jesus’ suffering is depicted in graphic detail; and the narration features such up-to-the-minute observations as ”This story is 2,000 years old. Back then, people thought the world was flat.”
The play, which has been commissioned by a church, proves controversial. Yet considering that the movie is set in cosmopolitan Montreal, the most pressing question the controversy raises is, ”Hasn’t Canada, in the past 20 years, ever seen a single touring company of Jesus Christ, Superstar?”
When the theater troupe attempts to publicize the play, Arcand moves on to his true agenda: lampooning the soulless commercialism of modern life. Yet here, too, he seems cloyingly behind the times. His targets are obvious: TV anchorpersons with phony smiles, a womanizing priest, a yuppie entertainment lawyer who’s unabashed about his materialism. Arcand is like a self-righteous flower child. When he attempts to parody a beer commercial, the jingle is so pointedly crass (gyrating models sing, ”The young crowd’s here, we worship beer!”) that it’s like nothing ever seen on TV. Arcand is the most infuriating of satirists, the kind who thinks treating a subject with merciless condescension is the same thing as savaging it.
Jesus of Montreal flits between the smug and the ersatz mystical. Throughout the movie, there are hints that the actor in the troupe who plays Jesus (Lothaire Bluteau) isn’t acting. He may be the real thing — a hippie savior for a world drowning in vulgarity. Arcand builds to a mood of dark spirituality, and Bluteau, who looks like a solemn clone of the pop star Rick Springfield, gives a quiet, affecting performance. He’s touchingly frail, a man too gentle for this world. Yet Jesus of Montreal doesn’t earn its mystical overtones. The pop-religious allegory is just a device, a heavy-handed way of getting people to feel they’ve brushed up against something profound. The trouble with Arcand is that he’s too eager to thumb his nose at the sins of this world. He’s the last director who should be making a film about Jesus: He doesn’t know the meaning of the word humility.