Miroir Noir

Dir. Vincent Morisset (Merge Records) -- 2 STARS

It’s night, and Arcade Fire frontman Win Butler sits alone in the backseat (appropriate!) of a moving taxi. He’s singing the lyrics to “Windowsill,” which, like so many of the other tracks off 2007’s “Neon Bible,” strike a world-weary tone. “I don’t want the salesman knocking at my door,” Butler intones. “I don’t want to live in America no more.” Right on cue, the cab stops for a red light right next to a Best Buy store, and its glowing sign floats in space next to Butler’s countenance. Even as he laments the cultural deadening of that old-time American religion—namely, consumerism—one of its emblems pops up, neon-bright, just through his cab’s window.

It’s a perfect moment; except, the scene ends what amounts to a 70-minute advertisement for Arcade Fire. “Miroir Noir,” Vincent Morisset’s new Arcade Fire concert film, combines scenes of the band’s performances and offstage antics with bits of found footage. The film is padded with fan testimonials, recorded on a hotline set up before the release of “Neon Bible”; these constitute a self-deprecating acknowledgement of the erstwhile indie darling’s mainstream windfall. But while it hastens to assure fans that the band hasn’t really changed, the movie’s many ambiguities frustrate that impulse.

Morisset, who helped shape the viral marketing blitz for “Neon Bible,” struggles stylistically. “Miroir Noir” often adopts a vérité approach. The final scene’s a nod to online indie concert series Black Cab Sessions, and many scenes capture the band members in the middle of rehearsals and downtime, in hopes of emulating the free-wheeling performances captured by Paris-based La Blogotheque’s Take-Away Shows. Yet the band members never let their guard down—they’re always performing, even during candid moments, sprinting up and down hotel hallways, putting on both literal and figurative masks. Maybe it’s the old observer effect, but the viewer never gets a glimpse behind the band’s indie cutesy-pie veneer, and it always seems like the band members are performing scripted roles.

Even these roles are equivocal. Butler comes off as, alternately, a revival preacher and wild-eyed revolutionary; either way, he exudes a scary amount of solemn zeal. His wife, multi-instrumentalist Régine Chassagne, gets some face time too—during which she never seems quite hinged, exactly. But for the most part, unless you really know the band members coming in, they remain mostly anonymous, faceless.

That’s not entirely the film’s fault; it’s also the band’s. After Arcade Fire’s debut release, “Funeral,” appeared in 2004, music bloggerati instantly elevated the group to the indie pantheon. They did so because of the music, and when “Miroir Noir” sticks to tunes, it shines. Morisset captures some barn-burning performances; the selections from “Funeral” prove the album’s destined to last, and even the “Neon Bible” tracks tempt audiences into forgiving the album’s thematic and lyrical heavy-handedness. But their stage personae are similarly overwrought, and songs such as “Surf City Eastern Block” (which has Butler assuming an alter ego) maintain a distance between listeners and the band.

During a stadium-show performance of “Neighborhood #3 (Power Out),” several of the group’s many members line up at the front of the stage to rock out. The moment calls to mind Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, right down to Butler’s vest, and the groups share a kindred spirit: both have shared a stage and a belief in the possibility of rock and roll salvation. Certainly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing to giant sell-out crowds. But Bruce’s aesthetic never really militated against going mainstream, while the Arcade Fire seem anxious to retain their indie character. Springsteen’s politics prize inclusivity; Butler’s music has attracted the masses, but there’s a curious isolationism in not wanting to live in America no more.

The pretensions of “Miroir Noir” do their best to keep populism at bay. Close-ups on a shaking door knob, bird’s-eye-views of street-level passersby, overblown anonymous calls (“I believe in myself, I believe in the cause, and I believe in the effect. I do believe.”)—they all make Morisset’s film and Arcade Fire a little less accessible. The group produces some fantastic music, but they too often resort to trading on their mystique. Their onscreen mawkishness and their fin-de-siècle peasant costumes cultivate an image designed to endear them to the white middle-class (it bears mentioning that the film’s only nonwhite characters are a quartet of black female singers hired to sing backgrounds on a track). Arcade Fire may not be in love with the modern world, but they’re still inescapably of it.

—Staff writer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at