As a filmmaker with over 60 years of experience, Denys Arcand provides a refreshingly long perspective on matters of culture in the Canadian context and beyond. His latest film, Testament, also allows him to poke and smirk at both (or all) sides of some ongoing societal conflicts. In effect, Arcand’s stature grants him this confidence and space, but it doesn’t mean he’s altogether in touch with today.
Testament revolves around the detached presence of Jean-Michel, a retired writer and part-time archivist played with bemused gravitas by Arcand’s long-time collaborator Rémy Girard. Via voiceover we’re given access to Jean-Michel’s thoughts on his life and place in the world as the film’s plot develops; in the main, it’s instigated by some clueless crusading activists who deem the mural in his retirement home—depicting a friendly meeting between natives and settlers—as an offensive attack on Canada’s First Nations people. Befitting Arcand’s choice of protagonist, however, the film continues at a languid pace, allowing for various jokes and subplots to proceed in the margins. (The emotive tale of the home’s director, played by Sophie Lorain, acts as a counterbalance to Jean-Michel’s uncomplicated life, but it’s also the most ridiculous.) Within that framework, the film’s targets become obvious: political correctness, the weaponization of identity, people’s general ignorance of history, and more. Arcand isn’t necessarily angry here, though; in truth, his reaction is to punch in both directions (left and right), which shifts the film’s perspective into colder territory—maybe, Arcand implies, none of this will matter anyway.
That Arcand does find a hopeful note with Testament while taking a longer view than typically allowed these days is unique—even if his sense of humour is anything but. In his calm approach, however, he ends up flattening—almost literally whitewashing—the concept of protest, of the real need and demand for change, into abstract absurdity. Yes, as the film notes, many people are stupid, but even in their inchoate rage not all of them are wrong. Time will bear that out too.