The Great Darkened Days opens up with a The Great Dictator quote — initially delivered by Charlie Chaplin in the ’40s — now offered to us by Philippe, our main character, as he competes in a Chaplin impersonation competition.
Phillipe is a draft-dodger and a Chaplin impersonator; he is from Montréal and he misses his mother. This is all we learn about our protagonist during a film that spans over an hour and a half.
Québécois director Maxime Giroux’s latest film is a lurid fever dream that attempts to explore — and ultimately condemn — capitalism and the American Dream. Giroux constructs a world where humans are sold as pets and considered a commodity; where well-dressed salesmen randomly show up in the middle of the desert peddling cigarettes; where the cars are from the ’50s, the clothes are from the ’30s, and the music is from the ’90s.
There is a war going on, we are told, but we don’t know which one. We don’t know where we are or what time period it is. All we are offered is a cast of bizarre characters acting out bizarre things.
On a technical level, The Great Darkened Days is near flawless. Sara Mishara’s cinematography — shot in a 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the common ratio of film in the ’30s — captures Nevada’s snow-capped mountain ranges and dusty deserts beautifully.
The score, arranged by Olivier Alary, is brooding and atmospheric, achieving a sense of ominous urgency that the plot and story ultimately do not deliver on. The performances are good as well, especially those by Sarah Gadon, who plays an evil woman, and Reda Kateb, who plays a sympathetic villain.
Unfortunately, the film begins to falter 20 minutes in, when the audience begins to realize that the story will be nothing more than a collection of abstract tableaus and vignettes haphazardly sewn together, like in a cheap quilt.
Some of the scenes come off as trying too hard to be disturbing, others as trying too hard to be profound — nothing flows naturally in Giroux’s effort. In the few moments that characters interact with one another, chemistry is all but absent.
The message of capitalist powers overpowering and commodifying every aspect of our lives also comes off as tired and surface-level. Giroux doesn’t put much weight into his allegory. Nothing hits close to home, nothing feels personal.
The Great Darkened Days lacks humanity. There is no bite, no nastiness, and no seduction in a movie that should have plenty of it all. In a Q&A session following my screening at TIFF, on the topic of abstract and absurd cinema, Giroux light-heartedly remarked that “everything has to be explained. I hate that.”
Maybe it’s for the best that we don’t delve deeper into this effort.