Exactly how you sell a vague and open-ended film like A Year in the Death of Jack Richards is a question on the mind of filmmaker Benjamin Paquette. How do you get moviegoers to connect with, let alone see in the first place, a film that gives its clues away in fleeting visual flashes and oblique cues in dialogue? Why even bother to tell such a difficult tale?
“I never thought of film as a business or entertainment or anything like that, to me it’s just what you do, so from the time I was 16 the idea of making feature films was kind of a normal thing,” Paquette says over coffee with a tiny parcel of Halifax film writers after screening the film. “I never thought of it as a job where you need money or should look at demographics. This was the film I was training to make.”
A Year in the Death is hard to pin down. It tells the story of a man so distraught over the disappearance of his daughter into a sinister cult he decides to end his own life by joining that cult to be treated as a king, then later murdered as atonement for the members’ sins. But a dramatic Or does he? should be affixed to that little summary. The film actually follows its title character breaking down psychologically while working as a superintendent of a Montreal apartment building.
Paquette talks about two avenues that led to the development of his story. The first was that of an old European legend, circa 15th century, of religious sects scooping up individuals to be cared for by the group for a year before being killed.
The second is closer to Paquette’s past. “I came to film school, Concordia, to do my Bachelor’s and while I was there I got to know the director of the program. He was this old Polish guy, single, very kind of gruff,” Paquette says. “I loved him to death. He was the smartest film guy I ever had and I didn’t know a lot of people in Montreal so I took to hanging out with him.
“He wouldn’t really open up to a lot about his past but you’d get little bits of it and you start to piece it together. He’d given up a lot in Poland to come here.”
So from solid inspiration comes a film that is vague and evasive but completely up for discussion. After listening to the surrounding critics give our opinions as to what the film might actually have been about, Paquette shrugs off explaining any one thing in the film by saying it was his intention to make a movie that was wide open to a variety of different interpretations.
Even lead actor Vlasta Vrana, who plays Jack Richards, dodges the task of applying any meaning to it.
“Don’t ask me about the film because I don’t know anything. I know what got me though making it, doing my part. And it’s not necessarily what anybody else should be ,” Vrana says. “I had the story, I had the idea of what it is, I know what I took as my motivations—I know that the story is much more complex than what I took for myself.”
Paquette has been on the road promoting A Year in the Death of Jack Richards at various film festivals—some as far-flung as Transylvania—since 2004. He has been staging this Canadian release on his own, without the help of a distributor but with a grant from Telefilm to help defray the various associated costs. Although he has thorough enough promotional materials, there may be no better tagline that indicates to audiences what to expect than his insistence that “the east you get in Europe, the more they like this film.”
A Year in the Death of Jack Richards opens Friday, November 10 at Bayers Lake.