Québécois director Maxime Giroux tells us about The Great Darkened Days, his absurdist, poetic, and often brutal fable about the corruptive power of capitalism. This is an excerpt from our ebook The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook, which is available for purchase here.
An absurdist and atemporal fable about the rot and corruption of capitalism, Maxime Giroux’s The Great Darkened Days represents a radical departure from his work in his previous effort, Félix and Meira. Following the burgeoning romance between a married Orthodox Jewish woman and a man who does not belong to that faith, the latter was firmly rooted in social-realism. But the two films do not appear simply different; they are diametrically opposed: the quietness and subtlety of Félix and Meira are swapped for chaos and violence in The Great Darkened Days; the beige tones for bright colours; the tenderness for cruelty.
Like Félix and Meira, The Great Darkened Days focuses on a lonely character who longs for connection. In the middle of the desert, somewhere in America, Philippe (the phenomenal Martin Dubreuil) is a stranded Québécois actor trying to get home. Like Meira, whose religion discourages contact with the outside world, Philippe tentatively approaches strangers who lend him a hand. Unlike her, he is repeatedly betrayed by those people, who quickly prove to be unscrupulously evil.
Soon, Philippe finds himself embroiled in a violent conflict that is all the more terrifying for the way its nature, its cause, and its purpose remain as vague and undefined as the time and place the story unfolds in. To both Philippe and the audience, the enemies shooting at him are unseen, and the reason why so many people want Philippe to suffer are unclear. In this general sense of confusion and danger, Philippe’s innocence and persistent empathy pierces the fog of cruelty and despair, and anchors this elaborate fantasy in our reality.
Maxime Giroux told us about the frustration that fuelled this very personal project, the deserted American towns he shot the film in, the balance between realism and abstraction, and much more.
Seventh Row (7R): What was the genesis of the project?
Maxime Giroux (MG): We are three on the project to have written the film. Simon Beaulieu arrived with the synopsis for a period drama, with a budget of around 8 or 10 million dollars. But for an arthouse film, that kind of money is impossible to raise in Quebec. So I said, “Forget it, we can’t do this now. Maybe one day, when I’m seventy years old, and I’m like Denys Arcand.” And I focused on another project, but I didn’t manage to get the money I needed for that other project.
There was a really intense weekend where I even considered not making any more films. Then eventually, I remembered Simon’s idea. I called him and said, “Let’s do it, but in a way where we can make it with little to no budget, write it very quickly, and shoot in five months with zero dollars.” With my money, with a bit of money from Metafilm, Nancy Grant’s and Sylvain Corbeil’s production company. We wrote the script while keeping in mind the fact that we basically had no money. So we had one camera, one character, in the desert.
I work in advertising, as well, and this is my most personal film, because the main character tells a bit about me, about my struggle with the world of advertising. I’m part of the pyramid. I’m one of the people in marketing who makes it so that people buy the products. My goal in life is to only make the films I want to make, without having to think about finding an audience for them. It’s not easy to do that these days. It’s what I decided to do with this film. I was thinking, “If it’s the last film I ever make, then I’ll do whatever I want, I don’t care!”
There were people who wanted to buy the film based on the script, and I was telling Sylvain [Corbeil, the producer], “If they want to buy it, they can, but I don’t want them to give me any comments or suggestions on the film. Even if they think their idea might help the script, I don’t care. I don’t want to change the script. Even if there are things that don’t work, I want to make the film with a total freedom, with its faults and its qualities.” It was a necessary gesture as an artist.
7R: Is this the first time that you worked with this much freedom? I imagine that short films allow for more freedom.
MG: When it comes to short films, you have more freedom. I nevertheless have managed to make little films with a lot of freedom — even the previous one, Félix and Meira. To get the money to make a film, you have to write the script and give it to institutions such as the CNC in France, and there are always comments. It’s long and annoying, and three years later, you’re still writing the script, but the flame is gone. This film, I wanted to make it, and I didn’t want to wait for other people’s money. I wanted to make it quickly. My next film, it’s the complete opposite: four or five million dollar budget. I don’t know if we’ll get it, but the writing has been done and “perfected.”
7R: Félix and Meira has a very different style from The Great Darkened Days. How do you go from one style to the other?
MG: It’s the topic of the film that dictates the style, for me. I know that some filmmakers have a very well defined, constant filmmaking style, and they adapt their topic to it. Many of the biggest directors are like this — Woody Allen, Xavier Dolan, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese — their style is very defined. For others, it’s not like that — Gus van Sant, for example. I’d say I’m in that category. When he made Milk, he wanted the film to reach as many people as possible, because the topic was important. Last Days was a much more personal film, about a character, Kurt Cobain, who wasn’t well, and so Van Sant made a more austere film. I think it’s kind of the same for me: the topic dictates the style.
Félix and Meira is about Hasidic Jews who are very discreet in Québécois society. We don’t really see them, and they don’t want to be noticed. They don’t want to talk to people… I had a desire for humility when approaching that topic. Subtlety, too. I couldn’t talk rubbish about this; I had to be careful. Here, I’m talking of the “capitalist system,” in a way, and that system is coarse, absurd, and violent, so I made a film that was coarse, absurd, and violent. And coloured like the marketing of the system: we sell you the dream. But in reality, it’s far from being the dream; it’s the very opposite.'I'm talking of the capitalist system, in a way, and that system is coarse, absurd, and violent, so I made a film that was coarse, absurd, and violent.' –Maxime GirouxClick To Tweet
7R: Do you like to do something different with every film?
MG: After Félix and Meira, I wanted to make a film that would be less subtle where I could have more fun with the cinematographic form. In The Great Darkened Days, it almost feels like we’re in a B movie, after a while — a genre film. As the story progresses, we come closer to the genre film, and closer to the violence that, in a way, characterises Hollywood. Then, at the end, we return to something more contemplative, which is more of the realm of auteur cinema. I wanted to play with cinema. It was really important for me.
I also chose this aesthetic because Hollywood has always been hand in hand with American capitalism and the American Dream. It’s with that dream that they managed to sell us the way of life we have today and which they continue to sell. Except that now, it’s not only America selling it, it’s the entire world. But it still comes from Hollywood. Even if it’s not cinema, then it’s Netflix, it’s the music, it’s everything — and it remains the American Dream.
To read the rest of the article, purchase a copy of The 2019 Canadian Cinema Yearbook here.