No matter where (or even if) iconic Quebecois filmmaker and satirist Denys Arcand’s career goes from this point onward, his eleventh film Testament – which has all the hallmarks of a swan song, of sorts – will remain a curious effort. Both self righteous and basic, Testament wants to desperately convey a sense of existential desperation and exhaustion surrounding the modern culture wars and how they intersect with personal and colonial histories, but it adds little more to the conversation or argument than a few catty remarks that aren’t particularly original or funny. Testament is obviously the work of a masterful filmmaker when it comes to framing performances and visual acumen, but as a satire it’s only good for a couple of scattered chuckles and even fewer unique talking points.
Jean-Michel Bouchard (Rémy Girard) is a lonely, reflective, lifelong bachelor and academic living in a retirement community, but still working a few shifts combing through old documents and data down at the national archives. The place where he lives – run by the kindly, beleaguered Suzanne (Sophie Lorain) – has come under fire in the press, not because of its lack of doctors or lives lost during the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, but because of a painting on the wall in a space reserved for musical performances. The painting depicts local indigenous peoples welcoming gun toting European settlers seemingly with open arms. Protestors – almost all of them young, white Anglos – have staked out a place on the lawn and refuse to leave until something is done about the offensive, but historical painting.
There’s so much happening in and around the core controversy in Testament that it’s hard to tell exactly what Arcand (The Barbarian Invasions, Jesus of Montreal, The Decline of the American Empire) wants the viewer to focus on. Is Testament supposed to be a critique of white saviours inserting themselves into indigenous matters, or the tale of a lonely old man living out his final days questioning his irrelevancy and searching for human connection? Is it about how the reforming and reshaping of culture into more equitable viewpoints runs afoul of bureaucracy, or is it an indictment of a world where elders have to constantly be wary of what they say and do for fear of being cancelled? Testament is all and none of these things at the same time because Arcand continually pitches the tone of the film at the level of an ever evolving and twisting rant.
Refusing to come down on either side of his own debates with any degree of conviction – although there’s a slight edge and benefit of the doubt given to the people of his generation, and less to anyone born after 1980 – and the result is a film that’s constantly at war with its own intentions. One moment, Arcand’s characters will be earnestly bemoaning how the young people today don’t know anything about Michel Focault or Andrei Tarkovsky, and the next sheepishly admitting that most colonial history is built on a foundation of institutionalized racism, sexism, and inequality, only seconds later to express some degree of exhaustion over having to remember the pronouns for a nonbinary resident of Jean-Michel’s home. The main character refuses to leave their job at the archives (a profession where passion is driven to some degree by nostalgia as much as it is a desire to make historical connections), but there’s also some degree of self awareness, as documented in Girard’s frequent narration of events. Testament is told from the perspective of a generation that never cared enough about global issues to protest about anything running afoul of hyper-aware millennials who care too much. (Side note: this particular dynamic is very Quebec specific, and it also works to the film’s detriment by ignoring pretty much anything that happened outside the province during the main character’s lifetime.) Is that because people of Arcand’s generation had a higher tolerance for misery and hardship or because they never bothered to ask questions to begin with?
Maybe the point to Testament is that all of us, regardless of moral and social viewpoints, have created a world where there are no “winners” and everyone has to do their best amidst people who are constantly blowing things out of proportion. It’s interesting and baits the viewer into thinking about problematic concepts, but that only works if the jokes are funny, perceptive, and original. In place of Arcand’s usually intricate, character and plot driven humour are “dad jokes” and stock observations about “the world we live in today (TM),” and almost all of them land with a thud. Even a pivot late in the film that shifts focus from skewering those on the woke left to those on the obstinate right isn’t doing anything new or novel. It just keeps the same old conversations afloat without deviation.
There’s also far too much going on in Testament for Arcand to spend time genuinely parsing out what this all could mean. There’s a subplot involving Jean-Michel constantly seeking out the services of a kindly sex worker (Marie-Mai), not for intercourse, but for someone he can speak to freely about what bothers him. There’s a lightly romantic flirtation between Girard and Lorain that’s well performed, but underwhelming. Lorain also has to play out her own subplots in having to navigate governmental oversight when trying to figure out what to do with the painting and also trying to reconnect to the estranged, philanthropic, doctor daughter she hasn’t spoken to in decades. Then there’s the matter of the grieving widow (Guylaine Tremblay) who has thrown away her healthy, life preserving lifestyle after her athletically active husband drops dead. None of these threads help Arcand’s cause and only muddy the waters further.
Testament is a film that wants to start a conversation without actually having one, like a set-up for a stand-up set that never arrives. It’s cranky, short sighted, simplistic, and largely empty, but that doesn’t mean its not raising issues on a basic level. The script and its pacing has all the gusto of watching someone frantically checking items off a not-well-thought-out checklist of talking points. It’s throwing everything it can at the viewer in terms of plotting and well worn jokes, but also holding back, not because it wants the audience to make up their own minds, but because it ultimately doesn’t know what to say. It’s like having a two hour debate with someone well spoken and intelligent who sometimes runs into a wall, shrugs, and says, “well, that’s just your opinion.” It’s an ornery, dyspeptic work that also wants to play nice, and that never works.
Testament opens in select theatres throughout Canada on Friday, November 10, 2023.
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