TIFF 2023: Days of Happiness Review

Sophie Desmarais excels as an aspiring conductor eager to prove herself

Writers often liken film directors to conductors. Directors guide the movements, tones, and rhythms of their actors, just as conductors keep time with the orchestra. But there’s more than the pace and tempo of hand gestures. Directors and conductors interpret a piece, giving it nuance and emotional complexity. If directors are indeed conductors, then Chloé Robichaud proves herself a regular Lydia Tár with Days of Happiness. This musically attune film reunites the filmmaker with her Sarah Prefers to Run star Sophie Desmarais. It’s another ambitious character study for them. Robichaud and Desmarais’ previous collaboration introduced audiences to a young woman who could keep a steady pace. Now, a decade later, they’ve created a character with a similar appreciation for time, yet deepened by a conductor’s grasp for the emotional tenor that gives a film a distinct voice.

Desmarais stars as Emma, an aspiring conductor on the cusp of a realizing her goal. As Emma’s residency with Montreal’s Orchestra Métropolitain winds up and she vies for a longer contract, she faces her ultimate challenge. Having consumed orchestrations by music’s greatest composers, she’s given audiences a sense of canonical movements, but no real idea of the woman on the podium. Moreover, Emma is determined to excel in a male-dominated field and free herself from the burden of expectations. She works twice as hard to prove that she’s neither novelty nor quota-filler.

Navigating Toxic Relationships

Complicating matters are Emma’s two major relationships. Her father, Patrick (Sylvain Marcel), is also her manager. He pushes Emma to fulfill the musical aspirations that he never achieved. There’s lots of tension here as Patrick’s doggedness isn’t typical type-A Aggressive agent behaviour. He’s clearly been a taskmaster in control of Emma her entire life. This sense becomes evident when the time comes for Emma to choose her “carte blanche” selection to conduct. The honour in her residency is also part of the audition for a permanent role. The board at the orchestra wants a sense of her personality and artistic direction.

Patrick pushes Emma to select Arnold Schoenberg’s Pelleas and Melisande. Emma expresses her doubts and notes the piece’s complexity. It’s not that she feels it’s out of her league—she just recognizes it as a challenging work that could easily misfire and alienate the audience. But Patrick insists and she concedes. The ensuing rehearsals are very, very bumpy. Emma just doesn’t connect with the piece and, therefore, struggles to interpret it artistically for the orchestra, failing to accentuate the fury it needs.


Emma’s inability to channel passion and rage into Pelleas and Melisande doubly frustrates her because her own love life is a mess. Her girlfriend, Naëlle (Nour Belkhiria), won’t let her sleep over even though they’ve been together eight months. She won’t introduce Emma to her son and wants to keep Emma a secret from her ex-husband. It doesn’t help that Naëlle also plays in the orchestra, so Emma has no options for checking her personal life at the door. With everything so tangled, her interpretation of the music inevitably proves chaotic.

In the Shadow of Tár

Comparisons to Tár are inevitable, but any similarity begins and end with the lead characters being lesbian conductors with a grasp for Mahler. (Although one can easily imagine an alternate ending to Days of Happiness that sees Emma conducting Monster Hunter after hitting rock bottom!) Where Lydia Tár is a virtuoso, but kind of an awful person (deliciously so), Emma desperately needs to escape her toxic relationships. She unravels when she approaches the precipice of losing everything.

Desmarais daringly commits to her performance and creates a character with a dynamic psyche. Emma’s career demands her to be a conductor in the sense of the word that’s synonymous with a conduit. She must interpret emotional traits of a piece and translate that for the orchestra. Desmarais therefore affords Emma great emotional intelligence and depth. Music is Emma’s only outlet and Desmarais channels these emotions into her hand movements and posture, creating a character who exudes musicality.

The cinematography by Ariel Méthot captures Emma’s complex psychology with intimate close-ups, but also dynamic framing as she commands the musicians. Crisp, clean lighting also gives the orchestra pit the aura of a sacred space, and really lets the sweat that pours off Desmarais accentuate how deeply and physically Emma brings the music to life.


A Film in Three Movements

But Emma is also reserved and clipped, particularly in the first two acts of the film when she struggles to find herself in the music. It’s here that Desmarais and Robichaud have a brilliant avenue to explore the character. Days of Happiness unfolds with three acts, each of which centres around the music that Emma conducts. The first act features Mozart. Here, Emma is every bit the perfectionist. She hits every beat with studied precision, but robotically so. In these scenes, Desmarais presents Emma as somewhat colder: she’s determined, a perfectionist ready to play in the big leagues.

In act two, which sees Emma tackle Schoenberg, Desmarais taps into her experience playing Pelleas and Melisande on stage. She understands the emotional dissonance of the piece. Her hand gestures don’t quite match the rhythm of the orchestra, illustrating how the conductor gets all up in her own head. In act three, Emma successfully bids for a replacement gig conducting Mahler. She goes all in trying to put a personal stamp on someone else’s selection after misfiring with Schoenberg. Here, everything clicks emotionally, physically, and musically when Desmarais channels the maelstrom of emotions and guides Days of Happiness to a powerful crescendo. Maybe further comparisons to Tár are actually warranted, given the strength of both the film and the performance.


Days of Happiness screened as part of TIFF 2023, which ran from September 7 to 17. 

Head here for more from the festival.

It opens in theatres later this year.