Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions , from his own screenplay, was moderately well received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, winning two major awards. It was also one of the highlights of last month’s New York Film Festival, and yet there remains a residue of nagging condescension towards Mr. Arcand’s film, namely of the “if-you-like-tearjerkers-you’ll-like-this” variety. Admittedly, for a film that ends with an estranged son embracing his dying father on his deathbed, the criticism is fair. But in my humble opinion, the emotional is fully earned and is only a small part of one of the most intelligent and articulate entertainments of the year from any country.
As it happens, The Barbarian Invasions serves as a sequel-17 years later-to Mr. Arcand’s trailblazing The Decline of the American Empire (1986). Much of the same cast from the earlier film is back, playing the same intimate circle of French-Canadian academics and sensualists who regaled international audiences in 1986, but who are now older and somewhat ruefully wiser. Mr. Arcand has noted that back in 1986, he had no idea that he’d return to these characters. Consequently, you don’t have to have seen the first film to understand and enjoy the second. Mr. Arcand is certainly not a maker of franchise films that leave you dangling at each ending, whetting your appetite for the next installment. But it adds a great deal of resonance to the experience if you’ve seen Decline before Invasions , or even after. It’s not absolutely necessary though, since The Barbarian Invasions is fully able to stand on its own two feet without any backward dependence on the excellence of Decline .
It should be noted at the outset that the titles of both films are somewhat misleading, with very little time spent on their larger implications. Rémy (Rémy Girard), the witty history professor and compulsive womanizer, prophetically remarked in a class lecture in Decline that the blacks would triumph over their white apartheid masters in South Africa simply because they outnumbered their oppressors; the progress of African-Americans in the U.S., however, would be hindered by their smaller numbers. Mr. Arcand’s characters reflect a skeptical “outsider” attitude, a beleaguered Quebecois society in the New World that shares our continent, but not our language.
Yet the children of Montcalm and Evangeline , for whom Mr. Arcand speaks so eloquently, could not count on the allegiance and respect of their Francophone brothers in Paris. Since the mid-1700’s, they’ve been cast adrift in a predominantly Anglophone country, itself dwarfed by the multicultural colossus to the south. Doubly alienated, Mr. Arcand’s academics talk dispassionately about the “decline of the American empire” as if they’re discussing the Romans-the ongoing “barbarian invasions” of the title referring to 9/11 and the insidious tactics of the barbarian hordes at our gates. The tone of these casually apocalyptic academics is curiously detached, as if they were standing safely outside the impending inferno.
Actually, Mr. Arcand devotes far less time to a television pundit’s instant wisdom on 9/11’s “barbarian invasions” than he did poring over his thesis on the decline of the American empire in his previous film. But even as metaphors, these two treatises weigh heavily on the individual lives of Mr. Arcand’s characters; The Barbarian Invasions reunites this group of once-antic spirits as they keep a death watch over their lustiest, lewdest and most lucid member.
The aforementioned Rémy has certainly paid for his excesses: He’s divorced from his wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), and estranged from both his son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), now a wealthy investment banker in London, and his daughter, a yachtswoman circling the globe, who says her final goodbyes to her father via cyberspace. Still, Rémy sticks to his guns by upbraiding his son for making his fortune electronically and bypassing the world of books completely. Sébastien, in Rémy’s eyes, is one of the new barbarians in our midst-part of the dry rot of our declining civilization.
Nonetheless, the fallen son uses his money and clout to get his father out of a dingy, crowded room in the inefficient, underfunded, chaotic mess of a hospital in Quebec. In the process, he greases enough palms to get his father into a private room, (it’s actually a private floor, despite Rémy’s feeble protests that since he voted for the Socialists and their national health plan, he feels duty-bound to endure the consequences). Mr. Arcand is scathing about the inefficiency and corruption he sees around him; he may be stepping on some sensitive, left-leaning toes over here by debunking the idealization of Canada’s health system by many Americans seeking cheaper drugs for seniors. (This is not to deny that the American health system is a shambles, for sale to the highest bidder at George Bush’s endless fund-raisers.)
Mr. Arcand’s tweaking of the left begins to draw blood when a virtual chorus line of disaffected academics begin to chant all the various political and cultural -isms, from Maoism to feminism, which they’d first embraced and then discarded over the past two decades. It’s a wicked number, and the point is made even sharper when Rémy recalls a visit to Beijing, where he attempted to woo a beautiful Chinese cultural employee by praising Mao’s Cultural Revolution-without realizing that the woman’s father, a professor himself, had been reduced to cleaning pig pens, and her mother had committed suicide. (Rémy later deduces that, in her mind, she couldn’t be sure whether he was a C.I.A. agent or a complete imbecile to be saying something so ridiculous.)
As for those on the right, Mr. Arcand certainly won’t win many friends there with his devastating attack on the punitive drug laws in effect in Canada and the United States, and on the sadistic puritanism of the medical profession in denying adequate relief from pain (the fear being that the terminally ill are in danger of becoming drug addicts). Indeed, I have never seen a movie as frank about the inherent corruption and hypocrisy of the anti-drug culture. Fortunately for Rémy, his son is wealthy enough to subsidize Nathalie (Maria-Josée Croze), the heroin-addicted daughter of Rémy’s ex-mistress, in exchange for scoring drugs for his father so that Rémy can have a steady supply of heroin. Sébastien actually enlists the help of a narcotics detective to assist him in his humanitarian heroin hunt. Such audacity suggests that money can buy anything in any society-even the most circumscribed of things. By dispensing these real-life truths in a movie that’s part of a global industry which tends to gloss over such unedifying realities, Mr. Arcand imparts a confessional flavor to the film that enhances its persuasiveness.
The essential core of the movie consists of the transcendent transformation of the relationship between an initially distant father and an openly disapproving son into one of heartbreaking emotional proximity when it’s almost too late. Mr. Arcand does well to keep his two co-protagonists plausibly apart for as long as possible, and he’s well served by a first-rate cast of unfamiliar performers-most from the province of Quebec, which might as well be Timbuktu for all a Manhattan art-house audience cares (though such unfamiliarity, of course, adds to the illusion of reality). On the other hand, I’m beginning to suspect that Mr. Arcand may be the victim of his own wit and erudition. Consciously or subconsciously, film critics feel more comfortable with characters less smart than themselves. When a brash intellectual filmmaker comes along and proceeds to shovel forth a passel of alter egos as smart as he is, many critics may find a way to dismiss him as a showoff who is so pleased with his creations that he has neglected to provide the “human touch,” whatever that is. In my humble opinion, Mr. Arcand is not a mere show-off; he’s a filmmaker who has written and directed a movie with his heart and soul.
Spaces and Places
Chuck Workman’s A House on a Hill combines an intermittently lyrical soundtrack with a relentlessly theoretical visual style to fashion an amiable fable about a retired architect named Harry Mayfield. The story centers on Harry’s obsession with a site on which a new house is being built-the same site where he had once built a dream house that later burned down, costing the life of his son. But the problem with the film is partly its lack of dramatic tension, and partly its assumption that an audience will respond to an artsy, architectural shot sequence of repeatedly expanding and contracting rectangles.
The cast of veteran performers adds to the en famille flavor of the proceedings, and Philip Baker Hall as Harry Mayfield is both the protagonist and the poltergeist of the production, possessing the kind of character charisma that can sustain the image of twilight dreams rekindled despite the film’s stylistic gimmickry. He’s more than adequately flanked by Laura San Giacomo as Gaby, a documentary filmmaker attracted to Harry’s midlife idealism in rebuilding a house on the very hill that his career, marriage and happiness went up in flames, and by Shirley Knight as his ex-wife Mercedes, who remains his compassionate friend.
Jerome Kern’s melodious “The Folks, Who Live on the Hill” (from Rouben Mamoulian’s 1937 film High, Wide, and Handsome , starring Irene Dunne) supplies much of the agreeable background music, along with snippets of Puccini, Copland, Glass and Rachmaninoff. On the theme of an architect’s integrity, Gary Cooper as Howard Roark materializes in a pointed film clip from King Vidor’s The Fountainhead (1949), adapted from Ayn Rand’s massive, once-scandalous anti-collectivist melodrama. Fortunately, Harry Mayfield isn’t compelled to blow up a housing project to preserve the purity of his vision; A House on a Hill is too sweet and gentle a film for that.
Frederico Fellini’s I Vitelloni (1953) is being honored on the 50th anniversary of its release with a new 35-millimeter print at Film Forum from Nov. 14 through 20. I book this film every year for my class on “International Films, 1930-1960” at Columbia’s School of the Arts because, among other reasons, it’s my favorite Fellini film, possibly his most personal effort and by far his funniest. The performances by Alberto Sordi, Franco Fabrizi and Leopoldo Trieste are among the most hilarious send-ups of Italy’s notoriously large crop of adult momma’s boys. Franco Interlenghi, one of the child protagonists in Vittorio De Sica’s Shoe-Shine , has grown up to serve as a stand-in for Fellini himself as the only one in his band of middle-class loafers to leave the provinces for Rome. What I never knew until I read the Film Forum’s production notes was that the part of the boss’ wife was played by Czech actress Lída Baarová, the one-time mistress of Goebbels. And here I thought Goebbels was a faithful married man when he committed suicide with his wife, after killing their children in Hitler’s bunker. These Nazis can’t be trusted in anything.