By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Toward the end of Denys Arcand’s wonderful new movie, The Barbarian Invasions, a group of old friends in late middle age sit around a dinner table, ruefully mulling the -isms — Marxism, Freudianism, Maoism, Situationism — they’ve embraced and discarded over the decades. Theory has failed them, and so has Eros, the glue that once held them together, and now one of them — the one who most loved life — is dying of cancer long before he thought he would.
If you saw Arcand’s Oscar-nominated 1987 film, The Decline of the American Empire, you’ll remember these same logorrheic QuĂ©becois (both the characters and the actors, who return to play their saggier, paunchier selves) gassing on, also over dinner but under very different circumstances, about the sexual adventures they’d had or dreamed of having, mostly with each other. The group revolved around RĂ©my (RĂ©my Girard), a history professor and a compulsive, if improbable, womanizer — plump and grinning, he looked like a sated hamster. Though he was happily married to the goodhearted Louise (DorothĂ©e Berryman) and a devoted father to his two children, RĂ©my’s easy charm and sensual nature made him a master seducer of women, including two in his inner circle, Diane (Louise Portal), a journalist with a taste for rough trade, and Dominique (Dominique Michel), a sharp-tongued, cynical historian. The group’s brittle post-prandial chat was all about illicit conquests, both male and female, cataloged in the confessional bragging of a generation pursuing, with feverish unease, private freedoms their predecessors could only dream of.
Between the lines they nursed nuclear fears and heatedly debated the classic indices of a dying civilization — low birthrates, the refusal to go to war, the single-minded pursuit of pleasure — and, as the Soviet Union teetered on collapse, the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninism as a model for a better world. Arcand’s posture toward this sophisticated but fundamentally clueless crew hovered between satire and farce. But he was never censorious or, as some critics maintained, cynical. He was showing us a milieu that reflected an era in eclipse — Decline was set in a health club and an idyllic lakeside retreat — and a generation that, for all its underground anxieties, assumed that the affluence and unfettered liberty they claimed as basic rights would go on forever.
Now, barely into the new millennium, comes the reckoning. Where Decline was shot with a warm, ample glow, The Barbarian Invasions opens in harsh blues and grays. Seated at a bank of shiny new computers in London, RĂ©my’s estranged son SĂ©bastien (played by QuĂ©becois comedian and musician StĂ©phane Rousseau, who has the doe-like looks of Nureyev) receives a call from his mother telling him that his father is gravely ill. Gathering up his cell phone, his state-of-the-art laptop and his feline-pretty trophy girlfriend (Marina Hands), he flies to Montreal, where his father, tubbier than ever and bald as a coot, lies in the corridor of an overcrowded hospital symbolic of a welfare state nearing meltdown.
Though he’s in terrible pain, RĂ©my still roars away to anyone who will listen, including a stupefied Catholic nurse, about history and art and the bloodlust of the human race down the ages. RĂ©my’s intellectual heroes these days are not lefties but chroniclers of totalitarianism and genocide — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi — and he still has a soft spot for Samuel Pepys, chronicler of sex. The movie takes its title from a glancing allusion to September 11 as a sign of America’s inability to keep “the barbarian at the gate,” but terrorism is not RĂ©my’s subject — he sees barbarism all around him. As far as he’s concerned, his son, who has grown rich doing murkily undefined things in international trade, is a “puritanical capitalist” while RĂ©my remains the proud “sensual socialist,” an unrepentant idealist and romantic aesthete who still flirts reflexively with any passerby in a skirt. He makes no apologies for his sexual excesses, even to the wife who divorced him years ago, and whom he still loves, as she does him despite her halfhearted rants about his past infidelities. SĂ©bastien, for his part, feels abandoned by his father, and has chosen an almost monkishly tidy life, while his sister has made good her escape by sailing a yacht alone around the world.
Like many filmmakers who were raised as strict Catholics, Arcand loves a good rebel, especially one who breaks the rules with his body as well as his mind. As a revolutionary intellectual, RĂ©my would more readily have danced with Emma Goldman than planned with Lenin. Religion is not an option — like all Arcand’s films, The Barbarian Invasions is littered with sallies against institutional Catholicism. Yet the movie is a deeply spiritual work. RĂ©my may be a significantly autobiographical figure for Arcand, who doubtless shares the dying man’s disgust with the arid, politically and morally uncommitted world his son inhabits. But the director is more generous than his stubborn protagonist, and he sees that even if history pursues an inexorably bloody path, individuals are always capable of surprising us, not to mention themselves. RĂ©my and his son lock horns as soon as they set eyes on one another, yet SĂ©bastien methodically sets about making his father’s stay more comfortable, which in his book means dangling wads of cash under the noses of crooked union officials (the dapper Arcand has an unlikely cameo as one of them) and a hospital administrator who gushes bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. When at last RĂ©my’s pain grows unbearable, SĂ©bastien drafts an old childhood friend, Diane’s daughter Nathalie (played by Marie-JosĂ©e Croze, whose brooding intensity as a fatalistic young junkie earned her a Best Actress award at Cannes last year), to supply his father with heroin.
Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!
Find everything you're looking for in your city
Find the best happy hour deals in your city
Get today's exclusive deals at savings of anywhere from 50-90%
Check out the hottest list of places and things to do around your city