It’s been a decade since Denys Arcand became the first French-Canadian director to win an Oscar for foreign-language film with his still-potent “The Barbarian Invasions,” but watching his latest, “An Eye for Beauty,” it feels like it’s been much longer. An almost bizarrely limp, emotionless, blank greeting card of a movie, this purported romantic comedy-drama contains little of the three, at best serving as a sort of extended L.L. Bean advertisement, full of fabulously shot footage of Eastern Canadian vistas and the well-dressed rustic yuppies who live there. Pic should be a tough sell outside Quebec.
Our allegedly sympathetic protagonist, Luc (Eric Bruneau), is a wealthy, renowned thirtysomething architect, who inhabits an impeccable house in a marvelously photogenic rural area near Quebec City. He’s outlandishly handsome and fit, married to the statuesque blond bombshell Stephanie (Melanie Thierry), knows his wine, grows bushels of his own Humboldt County pot in the nearby woods, drives a flashy T-Bird, sings tenor in the church choir, and has plenty of time to indulge in a spot of tennis, golf, ice hockey, skiing or hunting whenever the mood strikes. Though he implies it’s beneath his dignity, he sometimes accepts easy $1,200-per-day gigs to sit on an architectural panel in Toronto because he “can use the money.” (For what, exactly, no one ever specifies.) And even more fortunately, he’s possessed of little detectable inner life that might interfere with his glorious material happiness.
Yes, Luc seems to have everything, but as Charles Montgomery Burns once said, “I’d trade it all for a little more.” For one, although he’s handsomely compensated, Luc doesn’t feel his designs get enough credit, and complains that he’s rarely invited to the grand openings of his buildings. He also allows himself to be drawn into an affair with an English-speaking Torontonian (Melanie Merkosky), who seduces him by abruptly stating, “I married my high-school sweetheart. He’s been the only man in my life until now. I want you to spend the night with me.” (It’s hard to tell whether to blame Arcand’s English-language dialogue or Merkosky’s acting ability for these scenes, but either way, they’re fantastically creaky.)
In what passes for a central conflict, Luc begins to feel vaguely guilty about his philandering (at least, as far as we can tell from the serene placidity of his visage), while his wife begins to exhibit some signs of serious depression. This is not enough to cause Luc to alter his behavior in any appreciable way, but still. Meanwhile, other formless subplots see Luc confide in his lesbian doctor friend (cast standout Marie-Josee Croze), whose girlfriend he catches making out with his wife. His gruff longtime contractor (Michel Forget) comes down with a serious illness — though it’s not entirely clear what illness it is — which occasions some concerned glances and some half-hearted complaints about the health care system.
Throughout, one almost takes it on faith that Arcand will start to bare his satirical fangs at some point, but one waits in vain. A scene in which Stephanie suffers a mini-breakdown while she and Luc watch footage of Muammar Gaddafi being beaten might be intended to signify the horrors of the real world intruding on their perfect lives, but if so, it’s clumsily done. Other directorial decisions seem completely random. Slow-motion sports montages set to pop songs keep cropping up for no discernible reason. Explicit, extended sex scenes are full of gauzy lensing yet little if any eroticism. And one mistaken-identity blowjob sight gag is so out of place that, even if it had been well executed, audiences would still have likely been too confused to laugh.
If nothing else, d.p. Nathalie Moliavko-Vistozky is given broad license to compose some rather stunning shots of the variegated St. Lawrence River countryside as the passing seasons change its makeup entirely, shining a light on a region whose beauty has gone rather unheralded. The Quebec Film and Television Council should be most pleased.