Judge Neil Dorsett thinks this Denys Arcand movie should be SAVED! For a better DVD release.
Fr. LeClerc: "Whoah! I asked you to freshen up a play that worked for forty years. I didn't ask for this!"
At last, after well more than three days, Jesus of Montréal is risen on DVD…but is this a miraculous resurrection, or a stumbling zombie of a disc?
Facts of the Case
Daniel Couloumbe (Lothaire Bluteau, Orlando), actor, is recently returned to his home town of Montréal after extensive travel abroad. He's returned for a directing job: the cathedral on the mount has been experiencing audience falloff for their Easter Passion Play, and hopes to increase attendance by employing a young director to modernize the extremely stiff, old-fashioned show. The aptly named Father LeClerc (Gilles Pelletier), a former theater student, thinks that updating the text and modernizing the performances is the answer. Daniel notices an old friend, Constance L'azure (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), among the performers in a tape of the church's last Passion, and LeClerc encourages him to re-employ Constance in the new play. Daniel finds her working in a soup kitchen, and immediately gains not only his first enthusiastic collaborator but a home base in Constance's apartment.
He and Constance recruit actors, picking up Martin (powerhouse actor Rémy Girard, who heads the cast in Arcand's other international successes, Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions) after he's forced to double up on simultaneous parts in a porno dubbing session (rising, if you will, to the occasion). Martin in turn leads them to René (Robert LePage), a formal actor who has also been doing dub work, in this case on a Cosmos-like examination of the universe's scientific origins. René refuses a part in the unwritten play, but turns the group on to a friend who's looking to get into acting. "But," he says, "she may not be what you want."
Enter Parisian supermodel Mirelle Fontaine, walking on water for an Esprit television advertisement being produced by the film's nemesis figure: a crass and artless "creator" of advertisements. This astute predator of the theater scene has her prize model yanked away by the call of "mystical theatre" when Mirelle, seriously under confident in her worth apart from looks, makes the leap and joins in with the larval band. When René changes his mind, the team is complete. They base their Passion on the emergent historical and archaeological evidence about Jesus, and the surroundings which produced the Western world's dominant religion.
As things progress, we see partial performances of the play itself, as well as the surrounding events which increasingly mirror those of the gospels. Churchgoers who spend more time on Paul than the Gospels may be surprised at some of the things that come out of Jesus' mouth in the play, but the inflammatories are authentic to the gospels and aimed at the same folks they originally decried—those who pimp religion to serve their own control needs.
The show, with Daniel as Jesus and the rest of the five as a wide-ranging cast of "everyone else" (including Pharisees, Pilate, Simon and other magicians, as well as a couple of modern-day archaeologists) does tremendously well, pulling in exactly the crowds that LeClerc called for. But the play boldly describes how sick Jesus would be at the churches which have sprung up in his name—as well as openly questioning both the Immaculate Conception and the Resurrection. These themes are not welcomed by the waffling LeClerc or his superiors in the church. The stage is set for an all-too-familiar confrontation of which we all know the outcome…but what form shall the confrontation take?
"Appalache…my kind of beer!"
Jesus of Montréal is among my favorite movies. It came out when I was first leaving home for college and I missed it, picking it up a couple of years later on VHS once the Last Temptation furor had thoroughly swept by. When I finally did get to see it, I was bowled over not by any kind of bombast or huge proclamation of faith or anti-faith (the latter of which I'm more receptive to), but by its general level-headedness and conversational, easygoing tone. While the ideas are lofty, the film has its feet firmly on the ground. It allows viewers to read any level of subtle abstraction they care to bring to the table—including none at all.
On its surface, the movie is a familiar "the show must go on" tale. But the viewer will find plenty of characters to identify with, as well as levels of interest and access to the metaphors. (Of course, when you put an actor up on a cross and surround him with disciples, symbolism can't be totally avoided.) A judge (Arcand) sends Daniel to a court psychologist after he destroys the "money-changers' temple" (a beer commercial audition in which Mirelle is humiliated); the psychologist pronounces him "better-adjusted than most of the judges in this court" after he evinces no particular dissatisfaction with his career prospects. A slimy lawyer, making jokes about religion while ordering from a restaurant menu, tempts Daniel with the prospect of merchandising his image on phony books or salad dressing, "like Paul Newman." The Passion company sarcastically offers LeClerc a handful of alternate approaches to the play's material when he demands changes.
The crux of the movie is an impassioned speech from LeClerc after he's seen the play. LeClerc argues that while Daniel's elite play may attract intellectuals, it will fail those who need the church most: the poor, the uneducated, the insane—those who don't need to have history waved in their face by some swaggering nouveau theater type. But the look on his face, and Daniel's reflection of it, says that they both know who's really being elitist and underestimating people.
Jesus of Montréal is loaded with great moments which showcase the talent and abilities of the actors. When Daniel walks across water in the play (using a trick he learned from Mirelle as a result of her commercial work), it demonstrates the cyclic symbiosis that exists between faith and secularism (or practical life) which is mirrored by the film as a whole. The entire point, after all, is to draw people in to the Basilica: to commercialize it. When Couloumbe and company produce a play that resonates faith in the newfound visitors, the authorities are uncomfortable. LeClerc's capitulatory speech includes a direct refutation of his own initial directive when he says, "We get two million visitors a year here already!" Finally, we are given the modern world's answer to resurrection and the dawn of a new church: a permanent incorporation of the company—in cooperation with the slimy lawyer. The one true convert, Mirelle, cannot face this. We are left in a situation that rings true: institutions have no answers that can take the place of individual faith. Which or what faith is not as important a question as the assumption of responsibility by the individual person.
Mirelle: "I used to show my ass to sell beer and cigarettes. I
thought all men wanted was to screw me."
Much has been made of The Barbarian Invasions as a sequel to Arcand's Decline of the American Empire, and of course it is. But it is also a sequel of sorts to Jesus of Montréal, as the roles of Fr. LeClerc, Constance Lazure, and the unnamed security guard portrayed by Gaston LePage are reprised in Invasions. This connection turns the three films into an oblique trilogy not unlike Kiezlowski's Three Colors, although this trilogy is of course unplanned.
A paradox in this film is that, while Daniel and company have trouble putting their show on at the Basilica, Arcand was able to put his on—which included the play—completely. This has surely brought visitors to the cathedral because they've seen his secular film. In a strange way, the movie Jesus of Montréal is a success story mirroring the failure we see in the movie itself.
The film is presented in an open matte 1.33:1 transfer. The matte is intended to go fairly high in the picture, like in the cinematic exhibition of Mulholland Dr.. The transfer is the exact same one we saw on laserdisc and VHS back in 1991. It may be "pushed" a little to provide deeper blacks, and subjected to some digital noise reduction, but has not been properly remastered.
Audio is provided in the original French (Quebecois Patois), the dub presented at the time of the original release, and an appalling joke of a 5.1 "mix" (if "mix" means "all the sound comes from all the channels at once"). Avoid this audio option! The original Dolby Surround mix is far more appealing. The dub is bipolar. On one hand, it has excellently timed lip synchronization and the translation is good, in some cases more word-for-word accurate than the subtitles (though intent is conveyed equally by both scripts). On the other hand, it's as flat as the dub on a 1970s era Jackie Chan movie. The performances in the dub are terrible and the recording does nothing to put the characters into their environments. So, in essence, it's a textbook example of how a poor dub can mar the performances and weight of the picture. Watching this movie with this dub is the equivalent of reading its script without seeing the movie; the dub is just that flat. Extras include a rather high-handed theatrical trailer and some "cast biographies" that amount to nothing more than presskit entries from the movie's theatrical release, with no information fresher than 1989.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I don't have many bad things to say about Jesus of Montréal. Because it contains actual literary content and deals with the arts, it's an easy target for those who label movies "pretentious." It has cheesy eighties electric guitar work in it, the kind we knew was cheesy even at the time. When triumphant moments come in this movie, so comes the electric guitar. This has always detracted from the film, but now doubly so because it's so dated.
However, there's plenty bad to say about this disc. Pulldown flags are virtually ignored; the 5.1 mix is a terrible joke, the presskit is dated, and there's no remastering. This DVD is careless work.
Jesus of Montréal won scads of awards from various countries and festivals, including prestigious awards at Cannes, and was nominated for best foreign language film at the Oscars. Yet it still has the aura of an overlooked film. Between the performances (let's face it, any chance to watch Rémy Girard act is a great boon), the involving narrative, and the multiple levels of successful symbol involved, it's shouldn't be missed by any lover of acting, theater, philosophy, history, or anyone else looking for a good, low-key motion picture.
While this edition fails to do it justice, Jesus of Montréal is nonetheless an excellent film worthy of multiple viewings. File this disc under the "at least it exists" category, and pray that Criterion will start showing interest in Arcand one of these days (his catalog is considerably more extensive than the three or four films that have been widely released in the States). Jesus of Montréal is free to go.
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Studio: Koch Lorber
• Theatrical Trailer
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