Friday 15 March 2024

BFI Flare 2024: Days of Happiness

It has now been more than ten years since Chloé Robichaud's debut feature, the well-received Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah préfère la course), which played in competition for the Sutherland Award at the 2013 London Film Festival.  While Sarah Prefers to Run fell just short of the LFF's award for best first feature—Anthony Chen's Ilo Ilo took that particular honour—it did pick up a prize in Robichaud's native Canada at the same year's Vancouver International Film Festival.  In the gap between Sarah Prefers to Run and Robichaud's latest film Days of Happiness (Les jours heureux)—which screens tomorrow and Monday as part of BFI Flare—the director made the 2016 feature Boundaries (Pays), which cast Marvel star Emily VanCamp as a mediator in negotiations between the Canadian government and a fictional island nation.  Yet Boundaries is not the sum total of Robichaud's efforts from Sarah Prefers to Run through Days of Happiness: the past decade has also seen her undertake some TV work (more on that in a moment) and direct the Venice-premiering short Delphine.

Parallels can be made between Days of Happiness and another Flare 2024 selection, I Don't Know Who You Are: beyond both titles being Canadian films which focus on talented musicians navigating complex relationships in, respectively, Montréal and Toronto, the movies share a trait in that each is made by a filmmaker who previously wrote and directed every episode in a web series.  Just as three seasons of M. H. Murray's Teenagers preceded his I Don't Know Who You Are, Days of Happiness follows Robichaud's Féminin/Féminin, a show that aired on Canada's Ici ARTV from 2014 to 2018.  Days of Happiness sees Robichaud reunite with Sophie Desmarais, who played the title character in Sarah Prefers to Run; here, Desmarais stars as Emma, a young Montréal-based conductor whose career is on the up.  While her exacting work comes with its fair share of complications, it is Emma's life away from the podium that presents the most difficulties, but there are a couple of reasons why she has little chance of keeping things compartmentalised. 

Firstly, her father and agent, Patrick (Sylvain Marcel), is a domineering figure in both Emma's professional and private lives; furthermore, Emma is in an incipient relationship with one of her cellists, Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria), who is also mother to the young Jad (Rayan Benmoussa)—a detail which causes some friction, particularly on Naëlle's end.  Although Emma has achieved some success as a conductor, she is always having to impress her superiors in order to edge up the career ladder; against advice, she chooses a difficult Arnold Schönberg piece for an upcoming concert, and sets about preparing for this taxing performance.  As Emma tries to focus on her work, her relationships with the volatile Patrick and the hot-and-cold Naëlle deteriorate further, and this chaos is folded into the delivery of Schönberg's Pelleas und Melisande—a sequence which forms the emotional centrepiece of the film (although a late montage featuring flashbacks to Emma's childhood also proves very moving).  

In her workplace, Emma commands a huge group of musicians, yet her personal life sees everyone else calling the shots (note how, away from the concert hall, it is Naëlle who dictates the parameters of the relationship).  Comparisons can be made between Days of Happiness and Todd Field's Tár—which also centred on a gay female conductor who was attracted to a cellist—although the latter film established Cate Blanchett's title character as one in control of both her life and work, at least up to a point.  But whereas Lydia Tár is largely the author of her own misfortune, Emma is seemingly completely at the mercy of others when it comes to her own happiness.  Robichaud's film feels like both an authentic Montréal tale and a convincing portrayal of the world of classical music (Yannick Nézet-Séguin, the artistic director and principal conductor of the city's Orchéstre Metropolitain, served as the film's music consultant).  Days of Happiness may not be as ambitious in scope as Tár, but it is nonetheless an absorbing work in which Desmarais excels as the tormented maestra.

Darren Arnold

Images: Maison4tiers / BFI