A Farewell, with Facile Analysis; Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions"
by Peter Brunette
"The Barbarian Invasions," the new offering by veteran French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand, is a curiously schizophrenic work. On one hand, like its "prequel," "The Decline of the American Empire," which came out in 1986, it's hugely ambitious in its take on the lamentable situation and corrupt mores (as Arcand bitterly sees it) of our contemporary world. On the other hand, its analysis of this state of affairs is all too often annoyingly rhetorical and, finally, altogether too facile. Unhappily, it's also intensely theatrical, in the negative sense of anti-cinematic. Dialogue rules here, and people with well-defined character traits say archly clever things, and they say them non-stop. Yet, the film also offers moments of delectable reticence and a subtlety of emotion that ultimately manage to rescue it from itself.
The biggest hump for most spectators to get over will be the film's basic premise. Alas, it's a movie about a guy dying of cancer. His name is Rémy (Rémy Girard), he's a retired college teacher and a not-yet-completely retired ladies-man. His wife prevails upon his estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) to attend to his father on his deathbed. Sébastien is an arch-capitalist living in London, and does lots of bond trading (or something) by cell phone throughout the film. A can-do kind of guy, he greases the Quebec health-care bureaucracy with lots of money and gets his father a nice hospital room, and then goes about gathering all his father's old friends for a last farewell. One of the old friends has a troubled daughter, Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze, who won the best actress prize at Cannes for her role). She's a heroin junkie, which doesn't, for all that, keep her from looking great. It may not surprise you to discover that she teaches Sébastien the meaning of life and that he reconciles with his wayward but lovable and life-affirming father in the end.
Each of the 10 or more major characters in the film is sharply etched, in that bothersome stagey way that never corresponds to anything in real life. This script is WRITTEN, big time. With the exception of the son and the junkie daughter and one or two other minor characters, all are the same actors, playing the same roles, from "The Decline of the American Empire." There is Claude, the homosexual, whom the script calls upon to make a lot of self-deprecating gay jokes. There is Rémy's wife, who -- this being a French film (even if French-Canadian) -- is warmly forgiving of Rémy's former mistresses, who also crowd around the deathbed. At one moment (a moment some will take as supremely comic and others as utterly vulgar) the two of them try to one-up each other telling stories about giving him blowjobs.
Speeches that manage to be both longwinded and brisk breathtakingly purport to sum up one historical era or another. These set paragraphs are often sprinkled with erudite but witty references to great thinkers. In one scene, the characters laugh at all the "-isms" they've been prey to over the years (socialism, structuralism, feminism, etc.), as though these things had no meaning other than as fads to distract and give employment to middle-class intellectuals. While the film presumably is in favor of the supreme "-ism" rampant in this cinematic genre -- humanism -- the fact that these people laugh so hard and so humanly at their youthful "indiscretions" simply shows how superficial they really are.
This superficiality is unfortunately of a piece with Arcand's dyspeptic take on the modern world of overcrowded and underfunded health care, cosseted unions, and U.S. hegemony in North American life. Using a scattershot approach to hit as many targets as possible, these issues are raised through somewhat amusing little details (for example, a plethora of little American flags, everywhere, when they cross into Vermont for cancer treatment), but they are ultimately rather benign and don't go very deep. There is a nice little moment with a priest surveying the worthless religious art kitsch his diocese is burdened with, a moment that allows Arcand to point accurately to the irrelevance of the Catholic Church in present-day Quebec.
The film's French title contains a subtitle claiming that "the decline continues," a feature that will undoubtedly be suppressed in the film's U.S. release. A talking head is seen briefly on television asserting that the events of September 11 presage "barbarian invasions," but Arcand is maddeningly unclear about just what all this adds up to, and what his attitude to it really is. Is the end of the American empire richly deserved, or merely in the nature of things, merely the way history unfolds?
Hiding underneath all the forced hilarity and facile sagacity of the upper plot is a beautifully realized, supremely quiet short about a man coming to accept his own mortality. The hyped-up atmosphere stops, finally, and Arcand wisely minimizes everything: music, dialogue, action. He lets the primeval quality of this most archetypal human moment speak for itself: a last look at a beloved lake, a teary but underplayed farewell of loving friends. The film saves itself at the last moment, in little scenes like this, but it's been a long time getting there.
[PETER BRUNETTE is Professor of English and Cultural Studies at George Mason University, where he directs the Film and Media Studies Program. He has written or edited numerous books on film, including his recently completed book on the Hong Kong director Wong Kar-Wai (forthcoming from University of Illinois Press). He has written about films and festivals for Screen International, Film Quarterly, Film.com, Sight & Sound, the Boston Globe, The New York Times, and other publications. Brunette also serves as the artistic director of the Key Sunday Cinema Club, which has branches in seven cities.]