Death Becomes Him

With The Barbarian Invasions, Denys Arcand's cinematic alter-ego goes out with an emotional bang

Dec 17, 2003 at 4:00 am
Evidently, the French-Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand has a tremendous capacity for dividing the art movie/film fest crowd into enemy camps. Arcand's fans see him as a vibrant wit with a supple mind, capable of juggling many ideas at once and spicing his quirky analyses of contemporary society with playful asides and dead-eye satire. Detractors generally see him as a pretentious Baby Boomer who's lost his way in some dense pseudo-intellectual forest, never to emerge. Want to risk a fistfight at the popcorn stand? Just bring up, say, Arcand's 1989 film Jesus of Montreal, in which he had at religious hypocrisy and crass commercialism.

In any event, the faithful can now look forward to another encounter with their old ami Rémy (Rémy Girard), the talkative, free-thinking Marxist philanderer they first met back in 1986, in Arcand's much-debated The Decline of the American Empire. In The Barbarian Invasions, the old rogue Rémy is now in his late 50s, retired from university teaching and burdened with a clear view of the twilight: He's dying of cancer in a Quebec hospital. This will be welcome news, I suppose, for the Arcand-haters, who tend to be a generation younger than he is. For the rest, it presents an opportunity to revisit some old issues -- sex, friendship, politics and the stubborn tug of literature, to name a few, and to grapple with some new ones -- like family reconciliation, memory and death. Arcand is nothing if not ambitious and, for better or worse, he's always waded into the big questions of life with uncommon fearlessness.

This time around, we immediately see what a tight hold Rémy still has on Arcand's imagination. Certainly, he's not the first alter-ego to bubble up from a movie director's depths, and Arcand happily indulges his untidy hero's rants, sometimes comic, about everything from the follies of healthcare to the sins of Catholicism to the violent torments of history. When Rémy lays into an unsuspecting nun about the misdeeds of Pope Pius XII during World War II, we are taken aback by his presumption. But then, his presumption has always been essential, we suspect, to his rough, reckless charm.

Rémy's long-suffering wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), has long since divorced him, but her affection has survived his infidelities. Now that he's dying, Louise calls their son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a well-tailored investment banker living in London, to his father's bedside. They have been oil and water for decades. "He's a puritanical capitalist," Rémy raves. "I'm a sensual socialist." Nonetheless, the angry son and the unyielding father try to make final peace, and the uncertain, painful process of that effort turns into something tender and unexpectedly funny.

First Sébastien contrives, by outright bribery, to install his sick father in a private suite on an uninhabited floor of the teeming public hospital. Then he gets on the phone and invites Rémy's old friends -- the same high-spirited collection of big talkers, big eaters and confirmed hedonists gathered round him in Decline -- to one last blowout in his room and, later, to a deathwatch at the pretty lake house we saw in 1986. The rowdy group eventually includes Rémy's ex-wife, two of his former mistresses and a some longtime male friends, gay and straight -- who jabber happily on about sex, the life of the intellect and, inevitably, the world now and the world as they once knew it. In the midst of ribald jokes and regretful reminiscences, Rémy is more than ever the centerpiece, still the merciless radical full of vivid and unbending ideas. Affectionate and skeptical, Arcand does his best to take the final measure of Rémy's life, to see if he's contributed anything at all to the world.

Meanwhile, the resourceful son (working hard to please Mom more than Dad) enlists an old childhood friend, Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), to score some bags of pure heroin to alleviate his dying père's pain. That young Nathalie is now a junkie on the edge of death herself gives an added jolt to the film, which indulges the appetites of the flesh as readily as the passions of the mind. Arcand's showy references to assorted literary theories and modes of political thought can be irksome, and his inclusion, via familiar TV images, of the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks, is a bit baffling, at least to me. But in the end The Barbarian Invasions gives us the kind of pure emotion we haven't seen from him before -- a vision of collective friendship and love that stirs the soul. As a wildly imperfect man comes to the end, his death can have about it a certain perfection. Arcand loyalists are bound to miss Rémy, but at least he goes out in style. Even the antagonists will have to admit that.