Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 01, 2004 8:26 pm 
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Bold contradictions

Arcand's Les Invasions barbares isn’t the farrago of pseudo-intellectual name-dropping some have suggested. It's perfectly justified for Rémy (Rémy Girard) and the six or seven friends gathered at his deathbed to say they were existentialists, then Marxists, then Maoists, then structuralists, then deconstructionists, and so on. Their rather intellectual generation of French Canadians was successively all those things. They're not pseudo-intellectual; they're just interested in exploring their collective intellectual history. And they do so with humor and panache.

But the movie is marred by internal contradictions. A French Cannes Festival viewer suggested that it excels `à nous faire passer le plus facilement du monde du rire aux larmes' (at making the easiest transition in the world from laughter to tears). The trip isn't as smooth as all that. Not only do the maudlin passages sit ill with the cynical ones. The movie also relies for its fine farewell to leftist radical sensualism upon a hefty assist from amoral global capitalism. Shouldn't the two be uneasy bedfellows? These contrasts undermine the pleasure of watching Rémy's power-assisted transition from the world of the living to that of the dead.

Rémy is an irredeemable lecher who’s had a wife and several mistresses and slept with every woman he could get his hands on. He's avowedly enjoyed life to the hilt, but his pleasure has come at the price of a certain mediocrity. A history professor educated at Berkeley (why does he seem not to be very good at English, then?), he's never amounted to much academically, just written a few little articles. He's had a ball, but he has that regret.

Rémy's daughter is off sailing a boat somewhere and is seen only in two filmed emails, one cheery, one weepy. His son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), on the other hand, has been prevailed upon to come over from London where he's a brilliant broker/financier. Handsome, elegant, accomplished, and rich, he has little use for his dad and vice versa, but he nonetheless decides that since anything worth doing is worth doing well, he may as well see to it that Rémy gets a deluxe sendoff.

Rémy is estranged from his ex-wife, his friends, and his students, but Sébastien gets on the phone, doles out hefty piles of cash whenever needed, persuades the best friends and mistresses and wife to come to the bedside, and bribes the hospital union to set up a whole new deluxe private room for Rémy on an unused floor below (since when do hospitals have empty floors?). He even bribes bored students from his dad's class to drop by and feign interest and sympathy.

Since a medical friend tells Sébastien that heroin is `800%' more effective than morphine' for pain, he finds Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), the addict daughter of one of the friends, to help him obtain the drug and administer it to Rémy. Rémy is thenceforth kept supplied and feeling no pain except when, typically for a junky, Nathalie OD's and has to be tracked down while Rémy goes into withdrawal. When Rémy is taken with his entourage to his old country place to die, Sébastien gets the hospital nurse to come out and set up a drip for a final overdose of heroin. This is when the tearful, sometimes maudlin, goodbyes are said.

Sébastien's manipulations endear him to Rémy, it appears, because when their farewell comes it's as warm as any father/son bonding moment you've ever seen. The nurse has coached Sébastien on this, what to say, what to do. Underneath the layer of sensualist cynicism there is another one of touchy-feely self-help of the kind that believes that if you go to the right counselors and read the right books, you can learn to die right and redeem all failed relationships.

Most of the principals appeared in Arcand's successful 1986 art house film, The Decline of American Civilization, but it's the new characters, Sébastian and Nathalie, that save Les Invasions barbares from being just another talky, weepy generational reunion. The chatty reminiscences might pall, but Arcand has jazzed them up with the son's Machiavellian, arriviste control of the environment and added the tragic spice of the addict, Nathalie (who gets her own happy ending when she reassuringly switches to Methadone and Sébastien loans her Rémy's house to live in).

The drugs associated with cancer aren't fun; heroin is a fun drug, and an illegal one. This movie declares without shame that you don't need the benefits of spirituality to bow out gracefully, though it will help a lot to be high as a kite.

Rémy Girard, who's the central figure, is an actor of bumptious, obnoxious authority. Stéphane Rousseau, as his son, exudes competence. There's polished ensemble work from the rest, but it's the sad, real Marie-Josée Croze, as Nathalie, who contributes the most subtlety and depth. She won the best actress award at Cannes last year for this small but memorable performance.

What's refreshing and fun about The Barbarian Invasions (the title from a French interpretation of 9/11 is a dash of Baudrillard Lite) is how shamelessly wicked everybody in it is. There's none of the usual cinematic piety or gloom about terminal illness. This is a lively and intelligent movie, and it's not fair to call it facile, but its thinking is neither rigorous nor profound. Cynicism aside, its point is simply the old cliché that to look closely at death is to celebrate life.

The bribes and manipulations of Sébastien which make his father's death so comfortable are a cinematic cheat. This is not the way things happen in real life and the notion that you can buy a good death is fatuous. Deaths aren't customized. They're not orchestrated. Or are they? One doesn't really know till one's been there. What one does know is that this is only a movie, if one that tells its story with some degree of brio. There's enough bold action to keep it from seeming too talky.

Riding perhaps on its greater popularity in the francophone world and at Cannes where it got tears and ovations, The Barbarian Invasions won the 2004 Oscar for best Foreign Language Film. The logic of nominations in this category is mystifying. There are other titles, such as City of God (Ciudade de Deus) and The Son (Le Fils) that were more worthy. City of God got four much deserved Oscar nominations but none for best Foreign Language Film. The Son got nothing.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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