His intensely personal, challenging, and intellectual films have gained Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand a devoted international following. A former documentarian whose understanding of the human condition often results in movies with realistic and honest personalities, Arcand has seemingly cornered the market in cerebral, character-driven stories in an era when computer-generated explosions fill the multiplexes. A native of Deschambault, Canada, Arcand was raised in a strict Catholic household (his mother even aspired to become a Carmelite nun) and attended Jesuit school for nine years. The future director studied history at the University of Montreal, and it was there that he would produce his first short film, Seul ou Avec d'Autres, in 1962. Subsequently finding work with the National Film Board of Canada, early directing experience came with a trio of historical documentaries in 1964 and 1965 that explored the discovery of North America. Arcand was fascinated and repelled by the exploitation of textile workers and his first feature-length documentary, On Est au Coton (1970), explored the matter in such an explosive manner that it was ultimately banned in Canada.
Following his next political documentary, Quebec: Duplessis et Après... (1972), Arcand graduated to feature films. La Maudite Galette (also 1972) proved a brutal crime comedy concerning thieves, mistrust, and greed. In his growing years as a feature filmmaker, Arcand would alternate between fiction films and documentaries, at times combining the two in such efforts as 1975's Gina. A stint directing the 1985 television series Murder in the Family found Arcand becoming increasingly prolific, and the following year, the established director would release his masterpiece. An academic, character-driven drama in which a group of four men and four women explore themselves and the society surrounding them, The Decline of the American Empire was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the 1987 Oscars, won both best Canadian feature and the People's Choice Awards at the Toronto Film Festival, and swept the Genies in eight categories.
If critics and audiences claimed that lightning could not strike twice, Arcand's success with Jesus of Montreal the very next year proved that all bets were off. Inspired by the director's interaction with street actors who portray religious figures by night and pursue more commercial endeavors by day, the film once again received a Best Foreign Film nomination at the Oscars and swept the Genies -- this time in 12 categories. Arcand's skyrocketing success in the late '80s ultimately gave way to a something of a lull in the early to mid-'90s, and though his audacious comedy drama Love and Human Remains (1993) did strike home with some viewers, it went largely unnoticed in both his native Canada and the United States.
After exploring more pressing issues in 1996's Poverty and Other Delights, Arcand once again sharpened his knives for the social comedy Stardom (2000). A revealing tale of a young girl plucked from the spotlight and thrust into worldwide fame, the film proved somewhat of a departure from Arcand's generally more serious usual fare, in that it dealt with the subject of fame in a notably humorous fashion. After receiving generally positive reviews, Stardom quickly faded from the box office and was relegated to life on the home video market. Revisiting the characters of The Decline of the American Empire in his 2003 drama The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand was back on more familiar ground, and the tale of a man with terminal cancer revisiting his past took both the Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals by storm. The film's momentum continued and in 2004, Arcand won his first Academy Award, taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign-Language Film.