[1 May 2009]
The Arcade Fire’s enigmatic Miroir Noir opens with its most authentic moment: the band faces each other in the middle of an audience and gingerly eases into “Wake Up”. The fans bunch awkwardly around them as Win Butler intones into a ghetto-taped megaphone. Renowned for their sojourns into the crowd, this particular gimmick is usually configured as a populist transgression of the supposed boundary between performer and audience. But this footage shows indie’s high priests seeming uneasy among the faithful, who appear to share the feeling. No species of direct connection is sought. Even in such close quarters, the act of leveling can only be achieved through the conduit of the music.
The contradictions and hypocrisies that the Arcade Fire both embody and work gamely to transcend are visualized repeatedly in Miroir Noir. Directed by their long-time collaborator Vincent Morisset, this is never entirely a concert film nor a tour documentary nor even a film-student art flick, though elements of all three are prominent. Its most obvious antecedent is Radiohead’s Meeting People is Easy, but while that film unwinds gradually to the disaffected malaise in Thom Yorke’s voice, Miroir Noir is a self-aware tone-poem essay on the Arcade Fire’s navigation of the post-millennial liminal spaces between commercial capitalism and independent art.
In promoting 2007’s Neon Bible, the group’s chosen instruments for that navigation tended towards ironic appropriations of infomercial hucksterism. The film is replete with these concepts, from the cheesy pyramid-scheme ads released online to Richard Reed Parry’s front-row cameo on The Price Is Right. Perhaps the most penetrating idea of this type was the (866) NEON-BIBLE hotline, a number which fans could call to leave messages for the band. These recordings are interspersed throughout the film, and they vary from the adorable to the combative, from candid confessionals to hilarious non-sequiturs (“We’ve been touched by the hope and the truth. Oh shit, my foot’s on fire, I gotta go,” mutters one deadpan gent over shots of the band riding bumper cars). But one female caller sums up the Arcade Fire’s teetering balance of commercial appeal and soulful empathy perfectly: “Your product gave me my life back.”
Miroir Noir is not a product that is likely to give anyone their life back. The behind-the-scene footage is hardly revelatory, presenting the band hammering out ideas in the studio and relaxing on the road. Butler and Régine Chassagne are the most fully characterized, but even they only get the briefest of sketches. Chassagne’s pixie-like buoyancy shines through the random chop-cuts and marks her as the film’s most endearing force. We see her tiny feet straining to reach the pedals of the massive church organ she plays in “Intervention”, and later witness her effusive glee at the recording of the song’s backing orchestra.
Her liveliness is a welcome foil to Butler’s ponderous inscrutability. Though he joins Tim Kingsbury for a camera-mugging slow-dance to “Ocean of Noise” at one point, Butler is mostly a lifelike portrait of stoic detachment throughout. Morisset seems to realize this, providing a lengthy steadicam shot of Butler’s back as he walks through a festival audience, always already alone in a crowd.
I’ve said little about the music in the film, which should not be taken to imply that there is not much of it. But it’s mostly given to us in snatches, brief studio and live outtakes that serve to keep the film loosely on track. There are occasional shoots of inspiration poking through: the band playing Neon Bible‘s title track in an elevator, complete with torn-magazine percussion; Win and Régine in another elevator, letting rip on a version of “Windowsill” that quivers with easy power; and a verse or so of “Surf City Eastern Block”, a b-side piano ballad about a kid escaping East Berlin in the trunk of a car that veers closer to the Berlin-era-Bowie sun than the band has ever passed before.
The artsy editing finally relaxes enough to allow the live footage to build to a visceral climax with Funeral‘s anthemic duo of “Neighbourhood #3 (Power Out)” and “Rebellion (Lies)”, whose melding is ever a high-point of an Arcade Fire gig. It’s the most potent reminder of the Arcade Fire’s ambitious art that Miroir Noir possesses, and if the film does nothing more than remind us of its subjects’ transcendence in its final bow, then it can be called a success. The clear limit to the film’s success is that it doesn’t do much more than that, ultimately. Its effect is encapsulated by another of the Neon Bible Hotline’s callers: “No, I’m not satisfied. But I will have to keep on searching.”