The Barbarian Invasions
In 1986 the French-Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand gave us a fascinating roundelay of sex talk and good food among a group of Montreal academics and their friends, "The Decline of the American Empire." Although daring in its unlikely hero, the priapic history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard), who though married never met a woman he didn't want to bed - and succeeded more often than not - the film was, like Rémy, self-indulgent. Arcand seemed to carry Rémy's attitude of overgrown adolescent entitlement into his own creative vision of the film, almost as though he were making an "Animal House" for intellectuals.
Now, though, seventeen years later, Arcand picks up the story and some of the group in his new film "The Barbarian Invasions," and life has intruded itself into Rémy's world in a way no one had foreseen. Rémy has come to the end: now 60 years old, he is terminally ill with cancer. He's also divorced, and long estranged from his son, who is a financial wizard of some sort in London. Arcand has taken what might have been the dreary story of the end of a frustrating life and made it into a brilliant work that is at once the funniest film of the year so far and, perhaps, the saddest. The film won Mr. Arcand the screenwriting award at Cannes this year, and also won the best-actress award there for Marie-Josée Croze as the young heroin-addicted daughter of one of Rémy's old lovers. It should have won the Palme d'Or.
The genius of the film is that Arcand has given us an adult Rémy - so juvenile and self-obsessed back then - who now has grown clear-eyed and relaxed enough - adult enough - to let his brilliant wit, and his mocking view of the world and the lives of all of us in it, infuse the film with a life force that's like a chef's presentation of a delicious platter of perfect oysters: icy cold, tart and nutty-sweet all at once.
We meet Rémy as he's being admitted to a Montreal hospital. It is as overcrowded as a Calcutta ward, with what appears to be little in the way of real medicine being practiced and patients having to climb over each other to get to the toilet. His son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) comes reluctantly to visit, at the insistence of Rémy's ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), who has decided to see Rémy through to the end. When wealthy Sébastien sees the conditions, and discovers a whole floor below that's vacant, he bribes the hospital administrator and the union steward to bring his father downstairs into a great empty room; his capitalism trumps his father's Marxism. Rémy doesn't go without a fight: "I voted for Medicare, and I'll accept the consequences," he says. The friends and ex-lovers, hanging around the room, make the best companions for us as well; they reminisce, trade embarrassing memories, joke about life and death, are there for Rémy the way all of us wish to be for our own friends. And Rémy has the wickedest wit of all; there are more good lines in this film than in any dozen others this year.
Food and wine are important at times like this, and they play what you might call a lubricating role here. But the film never forgets that we are watching the death of a vital man. "The Barbarian Invasions" refers both to the attacks of September 11 and to Rémy's historical perspective, which says that people's wants and needs and pleasures are honored and indulged only as a society is in its terminal decline, presumably under pressure from the barbarians. For Rémy the cancer is the barbarian invasion.
In the course of the film, as Rémy declines and the pain increases, Sébastien contacts Nathalie (Croze), and makes a deal with her: he will pay for her heroin if she will procure enough for Rémy and inject it into him whenever he needs it. The relationship between Sébastien and Nathalie, and Nathalie and Rémy, is a fascinating part of the film, and lends a depth without being maudlin. By the end of the film, and of Rémy's life, we have seen a life that might have been our own, or a fantasy of our own, and have learned that we too should be prepared to face whatever comes. An amazing work, "The Barbarian Invasions" is as fine a film as we are likely to see this year.