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  February 26
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The Light Side of Death in 'The Barbarian Invasions’
by Jeremy Mathews

“The Barbarian Invasions”
Miramax Films
Written and directed by Denys Arcand
Produced by Daniel Louis and Denise Robert
Starring Rémy Girard, Stéphan Rousseau, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-Josée Croze, Marina Hands, Toni Cecchinato, Mitsou Gélinas and Johanne-Marie Tremblay
In French with English subtitles
Rated R
Opening at the Broadway

(out of four)

Quebecois writer/director Denys Arcand realizes that a film can be much more poignant if it has a sense of cynicism. The emotions of his new work, “The Barbarian Invasions,” catch you off-guard because you don’t expect such strong feelings to come out of a smart, funny film about a man who lived recklessly.

The film portrays what’s likely a very uncommon way to die, in which a lovable yet unreliable man manages to find forgiveness and acceptance from his friends and family for his various misgivings. If Arcand is a bit too romantic in communicating his thoughts on death, it’s because a too-serious film would become stagnant and pretentious.

The dying man is Rémy (Rémy Girard), the same opinionated, wine-drinking, womanizing professor from Arcand’s 1986 film “The Decline of theAmerican Empire,” now in his 50s. While the film stands perfectly well on its own, the revisiting of Rémy and his fellow left-wing intellectuals creates the feeling of catching up with old friends. Rémy faces death at a time when he sees civilization in decline, as people forget all the great writers of earlier centuries. No one much cares about preserving his library or his work.

Rémy’s son, Sébastien (Stephane Rousseau), is a successful and wealthy businessman in England, much to his father’s chagrin. He could have at least read one book, Rémy comments disdainfully.

Still, Sébastien flies to Montreal when he hears of his father’s illness. His mother and Rémy’s ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), encourages him because she’s taken to looking after Rémy despite his frequent past cheating, believing that her ex-husband is still, in a sense, her man.
Sébastien doesn’t understand or really know his father, but he wants to make his final days easier. So he calls up Rémy’s friends from “The Decline of the American Empire” to fly in to be with his father until he dies.

Pierre (Pierre Curzi) has married a younger, 30-something beautiful woman (Mitsou Gélinas), and breaks the ice by raving about it before any of his friends can make smart-ass comments. He’s proud of starting a new family. Claude (Yves Jacques) combines wisecracks, sexual innuendoes and scientific hypotheses (including one on Pierre’s wife’s breasts: “The quantity of blood needed to just irrigate it all must drain the brains out.”)

Diane (Louise Portal), one of Rémy’s old mistresses, asks how “the old sex maniac” is when she arrives, but is also distraught over her daughter, who’s addicted to drugs. Another of Rémy’s mistresses, Dominique (Dominique Michel) also returns.

Reunited, the old friends engage in thoughtful conversation with witty insight and bawdy jokes. The dialogue isn’t based on the plot, but on life and how it is— and should be— lived. Despite their various character flaws, these people are quite charming, and their flaws are admirable ones for no other reason than that they’ve lived fully enjoyable lives, although sometimes at others’ expense.

Rémy, for example, has made many mistakes in his quest for supreme happiness, but his friends still want him to die happy and without regrets. They talk about history, progress and his life and he complains about all of them, but finds happiness in his friends.

While the characters believe deeply in political ideals, Arcand treats both sides with skepticism. While negative things are said about corporate globalization, there are more comments on the intellectual circles in the film. The Canadian health-care system, for example, is a bit of a mess, but Rémy insists on using the system that he fought for when his son tries to bring him to the United States for treatment. This doesn’t stop Sébastien, however, from beating the poor hospital care with some clever bribery that gets Rémy a private room on an abandoned floor.

Sébastien’s other antics include a very funny attempt to buy illegal drugs for his father—he goes to a police station and asks where he can find some. Diane’s estranged, addicted daughter Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), however, is able to help out and also reaches out to Sébastien from her grittier world.

Croze won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film Festival (where Arcand also won for Best Screenplay) with her honest depiction of an emotionally torn woman doing her best to find freedom and humanity by helping Sébastien and his father, both of whom are worlds away from her. She and Sébastien find an unexpected harmony with one another.

The other major bridge built in the film is that between the old and the young. As Rémy’s character passes, the film creates an arc with his son. The new world of global corporations and big business, seen in Sébastien, is conquering the world of academia and philosophy. But maybe, the film wishfully dreams, the two might be able to reach a level of understanding.

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