In An Eye for Beauty, Denys Arcand displays a striking kind of distanced empathy. The filmmaker regards his wealthy, attractive characters from a cool remove that approximates how they appear to regard themselves, causing one to sense what might be missing from their lives, such as the highs and lows of emotional extremis. On paper, the film sounds ordinary, following a promising young architect, Luc (Éric Bruneau), as he enjoys the rarified Canadian high life with his wife Stéphanie (Mélanie Thierry) and assorted friends, skiing, playing tennis, entertaining at their enviable home, and so on. Luc meets Lindsay (Melanie Merkosky) at a conference in Toronto, and the two are powerfully attracted to one another, initiating an affair while Luc manages a variety of potential catastrophes in his home life.
Distinguishing the film is Arcand’s refusal to court traditional melodrama. The blossoming of Luc and Lindsay’s relationship is conveyed almost entirely through their respective physicality in context with the other. A telling lean of a body into another, or a prolonged smile, says far more than expository declarations ever could. Sometimes that platitudinous business about there “being a charge in the air” when meeting a significant partner isn’t a myth. After Luc and Lindsay have sex for the first time, the camera lingers on the latter’s face in close-up for an almost uncomfortably intimate amount of time, accentuating how often filmmakers fail to exhibit such emotional curiosity, particularly for female characters, when dramatizing post-coitus. It’s an intensely erotic moment, and it casts a subtle air of mystery on the film. Is this an affair, a fling, the blossoming of a socially “legitimate” longer-term association, or are these distinctions pitifully bourgeoisie to begin with?
The film’s calm and misleadingly tranquil atmosphere paradoxically captures the exhilaration of attraction. The tropes of traditional romances, such as an emphatic score and trumped-up “suspense” as to whether lovers will be caught by others, serve to distance us from the immediacy of the central union. In real life, when people meet someone who stirs something rare within them, it often serves to temporarily divorce them from their regular life, because this intensity feels like a miracle that renders ordinary things both more ordinary and less real. Luc and Lindsay appear to feel as if they’re walking through a dream, a sensation that’s exacerbated by the poshness of their lifestyles. Correspondingly, Arcand’s sureness as a director puts us in a trance, as he fashions a commandingly leisurely pace that allows us to follow these people who walk a tightrope separating ecstasy from misery.
It becomes increasingly evident that Lindsay has more invested in Luc than he does in her; retrospectively, that was always clear, yet she’s so open to him that we hope for her vulnerability to be vindicated. A strange, heartbreaking scene indicates the distance that truly exists between them, simultaneous to their attraction, when Luc leaves Lindsay’s five-star hotel room to wander Quebec City, eventually crashing in a dive motel. It’s the sort of confused, irrational behavior that real people exhibit, particularly when torn between multiple parties, and this scene casts a pall over the film. Luc’s discomfort with what Lindsay is offering (herself, fully), contrasts with his warmness with Stéphanie, who has mental problems. Stéphanie is afforded an astonishing close-up as well, on a ski lift, as Luc tries to talk her down from mania.
Arcand never morally editorializes. We’re never primed to approve or disapprove of Luc and Lindsay, or others, for their infidelities, and this dries the affair of its potentially heightened sense of stakes, which fosters a greater resonance of existential longing. We like to believe that our assorted mistakes, triumphs, and pleasures are grand indicators of the fascinating narrative that is our lives. But things may simply happen. And then they end.