After a foray into English-lingo production with “Love and Human Remains,” Canadian helmer Denys Arcand has returned to his Franco roots with “Poverty and Other Delights,” a gritty, low-budget chronicle of life among the homeless in inner-city Montreal. The French-language pic also is a throwback to the documentary features that marked the start of Arcand’s career in the early 1970s, but this doculike drama lacks the wit, style and dramatic punch of Arcand’s best work. Pic opened weakly at the B.O. on its home turf and looks like a very dubious commercial bet internationally.
The pic’s problems can be traced straight to the episodic script from first-time feature writer Claire Richard, which comes up short in a big way in terms of dramatic development. There are some memorable moments that echo Arcand’s trademark satirical style and Gaston Lepage is completely compelling in the lead role, but overall impact of the tale is muted by the anecdotal narrative.
Marcel (Lepage), a seasoned panhandler who is on a first-name basis with most of the city’s homeless folks, and his pal Joseph (Benoit Briere), the new kid on the homeless block, spend most of the film wandering the streets of Montreal, chatting, meeting with other down-and-out characters and telling each other stories. The yarn essentially is restricted to depictions of the colorful folks they run into during their downtown travels.
They bump into people like Leo, the wacky hunter who explains the best way to kill seals, and Germaine, a female friend of Marcel’s who has been beaten and bruised throughout her adult life. Then there’s David, the former lawyer who now spends his days drinking away his memories and reliving old court cases.
Marcel is desperate to find his buddy Stanley (Lorne Brass), whom he spots off in the distance right at the start of the tale. Stanley already has tried to commit suicide once by leaping in front of a subway train, and Marcel fears this disturbed homeless man may take another run at ending his life.
One of the strangest aspects of the pic is that Arcand and scripter Richard portray Marcel and Joseph as two basically happy-go-lucky fellows who aren’t all that scarred by their destitute circumstances. It is an intriguing take on the homeless issue, but the film fails to make it clear why these amiable bums are so markedly different from the tortured panhandlers seen daily on the streets of every major North American city.
There also is little narrative movement on display, and Richard relies far too heavily on relating one quirky anecdote after another. Arcand occasionally shows flashes of his old self when he pokes fun at — and captures perfectly — the idiosyncrasies of life on both sides of the economic divide, but the vintage social satire is in short supply this time around.
Lepage, a well-known Quebec character actor, delivers the performance of his career as the loquacious Marcel, and his talky, endearing turn is the best thing in “Poverty and Other Delights.” Briere fares less well, with his character largely overshadowed by Lepage in most scenes.
Originally initiated as a telefilm for Canuck pubcaster Radio-Canada, pic was shot in 16 mm and blown up to 35 mm, and veteran cameraman Guy Dufaux uses natural lighting and real-life street scenery to great effect, showcasing a seldom-seen side of the city core. Yves Laferriere’s evocative soundtrack runs the sonic gamut from bluesy slide guitar to eerie cello instrumentals.
Pic includes tongue-in-cheek nod to producer Denise Robert’s last feature, “The Confessional,” when Marcel takes refuge in a cinema and sleeps it off while the Robert Lepage film unspools on the bigscreen.