This strange, deceptively placid film, from 2014, is hard to describe. A French-Canadian work from renowned writer-director Denys Arcand, its title is incorrectly translated as “An Eye For Beauty”. I think the original title, “Le Regle de la Beauty”, is closer to its theme.
It opens with Luc (played by Eric Bruneau), a handsome, middle-aged architect, receiving a prestigious award. After the ceremony, he is stopped by an attractive middle-aged woman whom he at first doesn’t recognize. Then the story proper begins, in flashback, until it returns to the awards ceremony for the final scene.
We then see Luc as a young architect, just starting to be recognized. He is married to a beautiful woman, Stephanie, (played by Melanie Thierry), a college sports coach, and they live active, privileged lives along with their young, healthy and privileged friends. As shown in the above pic, they are stunningly attractive and, implicitly, very aware that life offers them privileges based on their superiority. The group does not disguise a smug, highly discriminating perspective that shuns and ridicules all that is not beautiful in life. They live in ultra-modern, stylishly decorated homes surrounded by the scenic wonders of Quebec, which make a thrilling back-drop to the story.
Or is it the other way round? Is the film meant as a celebration of the beauty of life, and the story, such as it is, is merely a back-drop? You can’t be blamed for seeing it that way, and I’m not sure that Arcand really cares if you do. The main dramatic crisis concerns Luc’s very sporadic affair with a young and (needless to say) beautiful woman, Lindsay, played by Melanie Merkosky, whom he meets when serving as a judge for an architecture competition (the same woman from the ceremony, but years earlier). Also married – but unhappily – she seizes upon Luc as a way to validate her own sexuality.
At the same time, Stephanie is showing signs of an ever-worsening depression that threatens her marriage and career. Luc continues the affair, but feels increasingly guilty as Stephanie’s condition deteriorates.
That’s all you really need to know. Arcand drops hints of divorce and suicide along the way, but there are none of the anticipated melodramatic flare-ups. In fact, the most original part of the film is the editing; the scenes are swift and anti-climactic, as if abandoning the characters in mid-action. You really don’t get to know how things turn out until the final scene at the awards ceremony.
Stunningly photographed by Nathalie Moliavko-Visotzky, the story nevertheless goes nowhere. These beautiful people are never less, or more, than pleasant to be around. Arcand passes no judgment on them and, interestingly, they pass no judgment on each other, even when personally betrayed. That would be so, so tiresome. The point being that a life of beauty is the only thing worth caring about and that, if you put your mind to it, it just gets easier.
But sometimes even a seriously flawed film, like this one, has penetrating moments that stay with you. Actually, just average but professional entertainment can satisfy, yet have no such moments. One such moment here has Luc talking on the phone with Isabelle (played by Marie-Josee Cruze), a doctor who is one of their social set. Luc’s partner is an elderly man who is dying of cancer, and Luc is asking her about discharging him from the hospital so he can die at home. With chilling exasperation, Isabelle complains that she really hates treating “cases” like that.
But one other scene is truly inspired, and disturbing (the quotes are approximate). It opens with a woman in a hijab screaming into the camera. We ask, where are we? Then the camera cuts to Luc’s living room, where Luc and Stephanie are watching a documentary showing a bloody street riot in the Middle East. Stephanie withdraws into a depressed state. Shocked and appalled, she asks Luc “Are we real?” Confused, Luc answers, hesitantly, “y-yes”. Stephanie then asks if what she is seeing is real. Luc shrugs. “It’s a documentary,” he answers. Stephanie is almost speechless now. “But how can that be?”, she asks. “If we are real, how can that be real too? We can’t both be real at the same time.”
Oh, but we can, says Arcand. We can so control our lives so that we experience nothing but beauty, all the time. And we can compartmentalize everything else, put it in a box for “future use”, if ever. This film is Arcand’s attempt to depict how we do that. But, while always beautiful to look at, it is dramatically flat, poorly motivated and sometimes laughable. Still it offers such visual pleasure that I was never bored.