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The Canadian Invasions
Quebecois Director Denys Arcand Discusses His New Film and Its Oscar Win, the Canadian Health-Care System and Jesus

Elaborate Filmmaking of the Thoughtful Kind

The Canadian Invasions
Quebecois Director Denys Arcand Discusses His New Film and Its Oscar Win, the Canadian Health-Care System and Jesus
by Jeremy Mathews
The RED Interview  

t the press screening of Quebecois writer/director Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, the audience reveled in the film’s wit and cynicism that covered everything from the Catholic Church to the Canadian health-care system. At the end of the film, I was a bit surprised and embarrassed to find tears in my eyes—until I noticed that the large room of hardened press members was filled with sniffles. In a festival filled with many needlessly depressing films, it was surprising to find that the funniest and one of the best films was about death.

Ten months later, on Feb. 29, Arcand and his producers received the Best Foreign Film Oscar for the film, showing that the academy members weren’t immune to the film’s charms either. Arcand didn’t think he’d win when Miramax employees said they thought he would, “but they know more about this than I do,” he said. “They’re there every year and they’re familiar with the workings of the Academy and they have their spies.”

Speaking on the phone from Montreal a few weeks after his Oscar win, Arcand said that the only way he could successfully look at someone’s final days was to revive the characters from his breakthrough 1986 hit, “The Decline of the American Empire,” which followed the faculty of a Montreal university’s history department as they spent a holiday talking about sex, sex, philosophy and sex.

Before the idea hit, he didn’t know how to tackle the bleak subject matter. “I struggled with that for a long, long time. I’d been trying to write that script for 15 years…on and off,” he said. “I was always ending up with these dreary scripts with someone getting ready to die and stuff like that—nothing that I would care to shoot. I kept them in a file and could never come up with anything, until about three years ago when I suddenly had this idea of going back to my characters from ‘The Decline of the American Empire.’” Once the concept hit him, Arcand found it very easy to write his film.

The dying man is Rémy (Rémy Girard), a leftist history professor with an appetite for wine, sex and conversation. He’s now in his 50s and doesn’t have much time left. His ex-wife Louise (Louise Berryman) calls his estranged son Sébastien (comedian Stéphane Rousseau) to come help him die. Sébastien doesn’t think much of Rémy as a father and Rémy sees his wealthy son, who works in stock trading in London, as a symbol of global capitalism who has never read a book. But Sébastien calls all of Rémy’s old friends into town to ensure a cheerful, happy death.

The witty characters bring comedy to the touchy theme. “They’re very cynical about life and would want to make jokes until the last moment—would want to smoke pot and have a drink and talk about the days when they all slept together in the ’60s and stuff like that. It allowed laughter and levity,” Arcand said.

Once he came up with the idea of using his old characters, Arcand said that he quickly realized that the dying man had to be Rémy. “Life is totally unjust and cruel. Very often it’s the people who love life the most, who enjoy everything and are having a ball, who are struck first,” he said. “So I thought it would be more poignant and dramatically more interesting if it was him. He’s irascible and he has ups and downs and stuff with his son. He allowed the widest range of writing.”

According to Arcand, bringing the characters up to date was not challenging. He seems to know exactly how they’ve spent the interval between the two films. “As soon as I decided, ‘OK, these are the characters, who’s there, who’s not there,’ it was very easy. I saw them in my mind. I knew what happened to them very quickly…I talked about it with the actors and they all agreed with me. We had not one disagreement.”

The characters aren’t based on specific people, so Arcand relied on his quick imagination to create the backgrounds. “They are basically composites. They aren’t one person, they sort of represent this group of people whom I hang out with, and myself also,” he said.

The actors and Arcand had all seen each other, but hadn’t all been together for a long time. “Montreal has a fairly vibrant artistic community, so I’d seen them in other films, TV shows, opening nights. They all have varied and very busy careers in theater or film or television. We were aware of where we were or what we were doing. I phoned them all when they had the idea.”

While the film revisits these characters, it stands alone as its own entity, although the feeling of revisiting old friends comes through if you’ve seen the first film. “This is not really a sequel,” said Arcand, who estimates that half the people who’ve seen “The Barbarian Invasions” haven’t seen “The Decline of the American Empire.” “Obviously, right off the bat, everyone 30 and below won’t have heard of the first film and won’t have a chance to see it. It has to stand alone, I made that clear. If you saw the other film, that’s an added plus.”

“In some countries, they’re going to re-issue a double DVD of both films. I think Miramax is thinking about it [for U.S. release.]”

Arcand’s direction of the old actors and the young ones who weren’t in the previous film didn’t vary a significant amount. “I wouldn’t say there was a whole lot of difference. [Rousseau] was a new actor in the sense that he had only been in one other film and was basically a stand-up comic, so he had a lot less experience than the others. Arcand said that Rousseau was looking for a small dramatic part, but ended up in consideration for Sébastien because that was the role for which Arcand was casting. He worked hard over five days to do a better job with the character, which surprised Arcand.

Marie-Josée Croze, who plays a heroin-addicted daughter of one of Rémy’s friends, had been in many films, including “Maelstrom” and “Ararat” and was already used to the process. Croze received the Best Actress award at Cannes, where Arcand received Best Screenplay. It was the first time one of his actors won a major award. “I think very often when my cast deserves such awards, they give it to me for the script or best director.”

“The other actors were very nice to them both,” Arcand said. “When you’re not dealing with movie stars, it becomes a lot easier. These are just good actors, they’re not stars so they don’t have egos or agents or managers and whatnot.”

“My feeling is that we are in a mess right now. But there is always a danger when you nationalize an entire field like that. At the very beginning, it worked very well and everybody was well-treated. The thing is that you create a humongous bureaucracy whenever you nationalize something. You end up 30 or 40 years later with a monster on your hands. And it becomes very, very inefficient. Everybody forgets about the sick people and how to take care of them. So we’re going to change that eventually, I’m not sure exactly how. But I’m certainly not advocating a return to the old system where rich people can be very well-taken care of and poor people are not. There are systems like the French have with vouchers. Nobody is sure about what should be done, but with any luck we’ll reform it somehow.”

Arcand also deals with religious issues, visiting the basement of a Catholic Church that hopes to sell its own artifacts to raise funds, only to find that the items have no great monetary value.

As controversy continues to swarm around “The Passion of the Christ,” Arcand can recall making “Jesus of Montreal” in 1989. That film used an experimental group of actors reworking the passion play to take modern questions into account.

Arcand hasn’t seen “The Passion,” but has a few thoughts on portraying the life of Jesus. “One thing that’s certainly positive is I love people who want to make a statement and put their money behind the statement. Mel Gibson has done something he wanted to do and he paid for it with his own money instead of buying a yacht…On the other side, we know so little about Palestine 2,000 years ago that I would never make a film that says, ‘This is the truth, this is the way it was.’ The only film that I could make was ‘Jesus of Montreal,’ when I was following an actor that was trying to recreate something, but it was a show. I don’t know how this film is structured, but it has to be presented as Mel Gibson’s vision of that…Presenting it as the truth is dangerous.”

Arcand will soon stop talking about his old films to work on a new one. “I’ve been so busy pushing this film for the last 10 months. That’s all I’ve done. But it’s coming to an end.” After the interview, Arcand left for Japan to do his final work promoting “The Barbarian Invasions.” As for the new film, “it’s going to be a film like all my films, shot here in Montreal in French with people I know. I’m going to start writing it in a couple weeks and probably work on it for a year or a year and a half.”

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