Questions of Art & Identity — Jesus of Montreal, Life Classes
by Matt Joyce
One’s identity and the complexity of this identity is where the artist finds the source for artistic expression. What has come to shape our individual identity will become clear in our art form. The relationship between individual identity and artistic expression is strong and similar for the one offers stability and clarity to the other. Many artists channel their expression from the familiarity and intensity of their individual identity. The strength of this relationship between individual identity and artistic expression can be illustrated in Denys Arcand’s film, Jesus De Montreal (1989), and William D. MacGillivray’s film, Life Classes (1987). When looking at these two films and the relationship between art and identity and how one spawns the other, we see the drive of the artist (the filmmaker) and how his identity is both inside and outside the film that he has created. Through the director on the outside and the characters and events within the film and the similarities between them we see how the artist’s identity creates the type of art he/she as an individual wants to express. The artistic expression of the characters acts as one with the style of the director and the difference between fiction and reality starts to unwind. “Those characters aren’t insects I’m looking at. Not at all. They’re my friends, they’re me.” (McSorley, 12)
When looking at individual identity in Jesus De Montreal, we see a more collective approach to questions of identity, which has been prominent in Denys Arcand’s life, and has helped to shape his style of artistic expression. Deny Arcand was born in 1941 on the north shore between Montreal and Quebec City. He had a passion for place, province and history. He had strong opinions about the separatist political movements in Quebec in the 1960s. He felt very close to his surroundings and passionate about Quebec but he had an individual voice and views that he wanted to share and have understood at a collective level. Arcand started to film a history series for the NFB; with his knowledge and unique touch the series soon challenged the NFB itself. Arcand’s first topic intrigued him, ‘the founding of Montreal’, but his producers had some serious questions. “As soon as I started making films about history, I began to get into trouble, because the way I was seeing history was far different from the way the government thought it should be seen.” (8) Feeling undermined, Arcand and several other filmmakers embraced a collaborative, collective approach. The political movements and events that led to the rejection of the Catholic Church within Quebec society inspired Arcand and others to make personal, political films that would ask questions as to what was going on ‘now’. “In short, history was now to be lived, imagined, invented, not merely read about or passively accepted.” (9)
Arcand lived the truth of all these political and historical questions and the issues he was exploring became personified in the identities which flowed into his art. He used ensemble casts rather than stars – though each character represented a different voice inside Arcand – because he wanted his stories to focus more on collective drama than on the individual. In his films characters feel trapped and people come together to break free from political processes that have held them down for generations, be it by the Church or the State. He wanted to use history to reveal what he believed and yet to layer it with perspectives that would open minds for future generations; “Arcand’s sense that if history must be analyzed, so too must the non-fiction film which claims to represent it. In other words, he will try to show “what is”, but he cannot give definitive answers, only new contexts for more and better questions”(11). He had to define an individual way of expressing himself artistically that broke free from rigid technical systems that the social design had set in place. “This protean output has consistently attempted to expose what is hidden, say what is unsaid, and interrogate what is unquestioned…[in] his ability to ask unsettling and awkward questions, to investigate simultaneously his subject matter, his audience and, ultimately himself.” (10)
The integrity of Denys Arcand’s vision – the passion he feels for his work, for his province and for his people, all the influences that have shaped his life and were evident in his earlier works – comes together in his masterpiece, Jesus De Montreal. The story is about a group of actors in Montreal who are hired to do a Passion Play, the story of Jesus Christ’s crucificion and resurrection. However, the story is done in a unconventional way that questions received beliefs about what is true. Although the play does well, the Church tries to stop the actors from performing because the play appears to violate or challenge the traditional version of history. The rejection of the Passion Play mirrors the obstacles Arcand has faced in struggling to hold true to his passionate commitment to his own artistic expression. Daniel Coloumbe, the character playing Christ, is very much the voice of Arcand, watching over his ensemble of actors, helping to protect his vision and his love against the prostitution of the commercial, advertising world. Daniel is the leader who stands for everything Arcand believes in and when Daniel starts to walk in the steps of Christ himself within the film – after he has been crushed by the Cross and yet rises again and again – then the audience is forced to truly ask, “what is to be believed”. Arcand blurs the boundaries between the inner story – the Passion Play – and the outer story, the film about its making – in order to show us that no one interpretation is the final truth. We must keep reinventing our fictions, our myths and belief systems, in order not to be crushed by what the powers that be would have us believe and replicate over and over. Look at the past in order to reach a higher knowledge: “I don’t know any way to reduce the human soul to a rational human statement. It is always broader than that, always deeper.” (11) It can be said that in Jesus de Montreal, Denys Arcand is Christ, gathering all his history into his passion only to find new ways of expressing himself in a journey that will never be concluded but will remain forever open-ended, open to doubt as well as belief.
Life Classes by William D. MacGillivary takes you inward. The life of a young woman growing into artistic expression and away from her island people in Cape Breton as she enters a wider world, centers the story even as it reflects the identity of an honest artist-filmmaker, MacGillivary himself. The film is about the relationship the viewer has with the character of Mary Cameron – we move as she moves, we come to care about her as she faces the life questions every young person needs to ask. She begins, as we all do, with a paint-by-numbers entry into the world she longs to inhabit. She wants to become an artist. She also wants to own her own life. She is rooted in a traditional community, close to her grandmother and vulnerable to the advances of the local tough. She wants to hold true to her past with its Gaelic roots and yet fears the restrictions of her current circumstances – the feeling you can’t escape the life you are stuck in – and she dreams of a future where she will come to be the person she believes it is in her to be. But how does she create this self? And how does the filmmaker make the film that will reveal this slow evolution?
The title alone points the way: Life Classes. Identity in this film is the search of a woman for her own identity through life classes – the birth of a child as an unwed mother, the leaving home to survive on her own, the choice to become an artist’s model to approach the artist’s world. She must come naked into this new world. She must break all her old boundaries and restraints. She must seek the new while remaining true to her core values. So too MacGillivary who must find the quiet, sensitive and unmanipulative, restrained and diffident style that will speak to her unfolding. Everything about this film is so Canadian – the rural versus the city life, the family values versus the need of the individual to find her own way alone, the quest to fulfill gender identity as a woman and yet to become the creator not the dreamer. And the quiet landscape that speaks so eloquently of what it feels like to be born in Cape Breton, that voice that never leaves Mary Cameron, that enfolds her in her grandmother’s arms, and that she fears losing and yet must leave until she can find her own identity.
Unlike the ensemble cast of Jesus de Montreal which created a collective drama, Life Classes is a study of one character and portrays the struggle for feminist values of liberation through the journey to self-empowerment of one woman. Where at the beginning Mary is used by her boyfriend Earl, at the end she comes to use him as her model and to transform and to unsettle him by her vision of what she sees in her One Man Show. Her growth is revealed in the progression of her art, from its naieve beginnings in paint-by-numbers to her solo show at the end. The woman who looks down on her at the employment agency later becomes a surprised collector of her work. MacGillivary allows each revelation of Mary’s deepening character to speak for itself, each scene like a movement in an intimate conversation. Robin Wood has said, “In Life Classes I seem to hear William MacGillivray speaking to me, and I am impressed that, unlike so many personal filmmakers who step outside the dominant norms, he wishes to talk to me about things other than himself”(Wood, 24).
The scene where Mary sings naked her Gaelic song embodies the fused elements of her journey to break free and yet to remain true to her roots. The other characters in the film represent the more superficial and bogus energies – the German feminist talking about her work, in translation, work that she conceptualizes but does not create, the television producer who stages the glass cages of isolated and yet exhibited specimens of artistic expression, so like the ‘make it new’ attitude of the arts today. But MacGillivary gives to Mary the tender and sincere effort of selfhood – the slow building of the self despite all the superficial distractions of the world around her. He remains completely honest to the character of Mary. He has stepped aside to let her think and act on her own terms. What we come away with is a vision of how one person has come into her own identity through the very human and vulnerable efforts of her own talent and of the filmmaker who honours her journey.
When we look at these two films, Jesus de Montreal and Life Classes, we see again how the artist organizes the raw material of life through the creative process. Each artist must first become the person who can create the art. Denys Arcand through being steeped in the political, social and religious issues of Quebec, has dared to layer the ultimate questions of his identity and that of his people through the staging of the Passion Play that will ultimately offend the authorities. His is a collective drama and he as the director blows apart all expectations. In contrast William MacGillivary slows the search down to the small drama of one individual in an ordinary life and by so doing captures the universal questions in a subtle but haunting evocation of possibilities inherent in all of our lives – we can all become the persons we want to be, not in the world’s terms or up against the figures of history but quietly, on our own terms. Both films speak in the voice of their makers – one almost larger than life, and the other more muted but equally eloquent.
Tom McSorley. “Between Desire and Design: The Passionate, Sceptical Cinema of Denys Arcand”
Robin Wood. “Towards A Canadian (inter)National Cinema: Life Classes”