The Barbarian Invasions
Posted 30 September 2003 - 04:18 AM
My impression is that a lot of Christians are familiar with Jesus of Montreal but not with Arcand's other films -- that was certainly true of me for several years, at any rate (until I took a course on the films of Arcand that was taught by a UBC professor who had just co-edited a book on the subject). What a lot of Jesus of Montreal fans may not know is that Arcand earned his master's degree in history, and that he started his career in the movies by making historical documentaries for the National Film Board -- one of which, on Quebec founding father Samuel de Champlain, got him into trouble because it was considered too revisionist. Arcand has continued to bring a historical perspective to his films ever since -- Comfort and Indifference, his documentary on the 1980 referendum on Quebec sovereignty, featured an actor as Machiavelli, reciting lines from The Prince, to show how the federal Canadian government was using every trick in the book to keep its power over that province. And thus the title of his Oscar-nominated sex comedy refers to the "American empire".
I didn't see that film until the mid-'90s, but I remember reading in the mid-'80s an interview with Arcand in which he said that he had to keep his film inexpensive, so he decided it should be about people talking; and then he asked himself what people liked to talk about (and what would help the movie sell), and he decided it would be sex. But the film is about more than that -- several of the characters are upper-middle-class academics (at least one of them is even an historian), and the film begins with a woman telling a reporter that moral depravity is usually a sign of an empire in decline; thus, there is a socio-political subtext to the movie that lies beneath all the philandering. This then led straight into Arcand's next film, Jesus of Montreal -- as Arcand put it in one interview, once everyone has slept with everyone, THEN what do we do? Having identified America with ancient pagan Rome, and having plumbed the depths of cynical amorality, Arcand now asks if a man living on the fringe (Quebec) of the fringe (Canada) of the American empire might be able to point us all to some deeper meaning in life, the way a man living on the fringe (Galilee) of the fringe (Palestine) of the Roman empire did.
As Jesus of Montreal fans may recall, the protagonist in that film dies partly because of the appalling conditions in a public francophone hospital -- by the time he is taken to an anglophone Jewish hospital, it is too late to save him. To judge from The Barbarian Invasions, things have gotten even worse in the intervening years -- the camera follows a nun down a crowded corridor as she passes numerous patients and staff members, wires hanging down from the ceiling as technicians try to fix whatever's wrong. "Third world," I thought to myself, and sure enough, one of the characters makes this exact comparison later on. But then something unexpected happened -- the nun stops by one patient's room to give him a communion wafer, and then, just as I'm thinking to myself that I recognize her, she introduces herself as "Sister Constance Lazure". Constance? The same Constance who worked in a soup kitchen before joining the acting troupe in Jesus of Montreal? The same Constance who had an affair with the local priest before he turned against the actors? Is it possible that this same Constance went on to become a nun? The Constance of THIS film has three or four scenes in which she asserts that there must be a God who can forgive the abominable crimes we commit, that embracing the mystery of life is what can save us, and so on, and if any other actress had played this role, I might have expected Arcand to pooh-pooh her naivete. But there is nothing condescending in Arcand's treatment of her (even if her advice is ignored in the end), and the fact that she represents a link to Jesus of Montreal, perhaps Arcand's most compassionate and least cynical film, just reinforces the sense I get that Arcand respects this person, even if he cannot quite agree with her.
I haven't mentioned anything about the plot yet. Basically, Remy, the serial adulterer of Decline, is now divorced and estranged from his children, and what's more, he is terminally ill, so all his friends come back to be reunited with him at his bedside. (Oddly enough, this includes the gay character who, it was strongly hinted in the first film, had an AIDS-like disease; perhaps Arcand took Celluloid Closet author Vito Russo's criticism to heart and decided that, since blood in the urine was NOT a symptom of AIDS, the character must have been suffering from something else and got better.) Personal mortality is juxtaposed with national mortality, as an academic on TV compares the September 11 attack to an invasion of barbarians -- no longer are they being held off in Germany or wherever, but now they have struck Rome itself. When Remy's estranged son goes looking for heroin to ease his old man's pain, a narcotics officer makes a similar comment about dealers "invading" Canada from other countries. In other words, the empire is still in decline.
Somewhere in all this, there is an almost superfluous scene set in an underground warehouse in Montreal, where a lot of religious art is sitting unwanted, unused, in a state of decay ... and the person who wants to know if the church can sell any of this stuff off is the very same priest who had the affair with Constance and commissioned the ill-fated passion play in Jesus of Montreal so many years ago. At one point, the priest talks about how the emptying of Catholic churches in Quebec can be dated to a precise moment in Quebec history -- in 1966, in fact -- and so we are left with the impression that religious institutions have their own mortality to deal with, too. (But of course, based on what we see in this film and in Jesus of Montreal, does not this priest have a somewhat jaded, moribund faith, at least compared to the sincere faith of Constance? Is his sort of jaded institutionalized faith at least partly to blame for the abandonment of religion nearly 40 years ago, which led to the so-called sexual liberation satirized in Decline and has now left these people at death's door with no sense of meaning or purpose or fulfillment?)
There are other points to ponder in this film, but these ones jumped out at me, for obvious reasons. Like I said above, Arcand has said that he made Jesus of Montreal partly to answer the question of where do we go after we indulge ourselves and try to lose ourselves in sensuality the way the characters in Decline did, so I went into this new film to see how Arcand might answer this question using the characters from Decline themselves. But it hadn't occured to me that he might bring in a couple of characters from Jesus of Montreal to help deal with that question.
Posted 30 September 2003 - 09:03 AM
Characters or actors. I know that there are actors in both Decline and Jesus, so I would expect to see some actors from Jesus re-doing their roles from Decline. But are they the roles from Jesus?
And what I found especially intriguing is that the new film includes not one, but two, characters from Arcand's 1989 classic Jesus of Montreal.
Posted 30 September 2003 - 12:37 PM
: Characters or actors.
Characters, I would say. (If I was counting actors, the number would be higher than two -- for example, Remy Girard plays the philanderer Remy in both Decline and Barbarian, and he also plays one of the actors in Jesus; plus, director Denys Arcand has a cameo as a judge in Jesus and he also has a cameo as a union guy in Barbarian.) The actress who played the compassionate actress named Constance in Jesus now plays the compassionate nun named Constance in Barbarian, and the actor who played the jaded priest in Jesus now plays the jaded priest in Barbarian -- and his scene, in particular, could easily have been left out of the film. I think Arcand really wanted to strengthen the new film's ties and allusions to Jesus of Montreal.
Posted 30 September 2003 - 02:12 PM
One of these days I'll be getting back to JOM - looks like the appearance of BI on a post-VIFF Vancouver screen (given that its VIFF visit ended last night), or eventually on DVD, can be the occasion for that.
Posted 21 October 2003 - 01:50 PM
: Characters or actors.
I don't know why I didn't do this before, but I just checked the book that I linked to above, and in there, they say the full name for the one character in Jesus of Montreal is "Constance Lazure", which is precisely the name that the nun in The Barbarian Invasions has.
So -- same actress, same first and last name, same basic personality -- that settles it, it's the same character. The soup-kitchen worker who had the affair with the priest and then joined the passion-play troupe, only to watch the leader of the troupe die, partly because of the appalling conditions in Montreal hospitals, has, in the 14 years since, become a nun who works in one of those hospitals.
(If I had any doubts before, it was partly because the IMDB only listed Constance's first name in the Jesus of Montreal credits; for some reason it didn't occur to me to look her name up elsewhere until now.)
There is an interesting interview at the back of this book, BTW, which sheds some light not only on Arcand's earlier films but also on this new film, I think:
So the lack of political ideology that those characters [in Decline of the American Empire] exhibit basically reflects a similar lack in your life?At the end of the interview, which took place after Arcand had made his first English-language film Love and Human Remains, Arcand says he does not know what his next film will be, but at some point he wants to make a film inspired by the death of his parents. I suspect The Barbarian Invasions might sort-of be that film -- I say sort-of because I believe it was also inspired by the death of a friend of Arcand's, as well as by Arcand's growing sense of his own mortality (he dedicates the film to his daughter, IIRC, and he has said that he is concerned that at some point she will have to go on living and growing up long after he has passed away). I believe Arcand has made only two other films between Love and Human Remains and The Barbarian Invasions, one of which was a French-language film that surprisingly never played here, the other of which was a fairly shallow film about the shallowness of celebrity culture called Stardom. So unless that French-language film dealt with the death of his parents somehow, The Barbarian Invasions is probably the closest he has come to dealing with that subject matter.
Exactly. Political ideology does not interest me at all anymore. Many of the collective movements in which I once took part, directly or indirectly, seem to lead to a dead end. Thus, I experience a feeling of disarray, and it is this feeling that suffuses the film.
Is hedonism the only solution, then?
Of course not. Hedonism is another dead end. It leads nowhere.
Then where is the solution? Do you think that elsewhere, outside Quebec or Canada, things might be more promising?
No. There probably are not any solutions elsewhere, either. The only difference is that at least things happen elsewhre. In Canada, nothing ever happens. Canada has always been in the margin of everything. Firstly, it was in the margin of the French empire. Later it moved to the margin of the British empire. And now Canada is in the margin of the American empire. But there is nothing we can do about that. Canada is a northern country, with an enormous territory and a very small population. How can anything ever happen here?
But there are also advantages to living in the margin. The most insightful analysis of The Decline I have ever read is a comment published in Saturday Night. The reviewer argues that critiques have focused too much on the spoken discourse of the film, at the expense of the visual and musical discourses. In his view, and I agree with him, these non-verbal enunciations convey that, while Canada might not have a very exciting history, there is a sense of peacefulness and serenity here; an immanent happiness that no one "talks" about, but that is communicated through images of the landscape, of nature, of the beautiful houses that the characters inhabit. It is also in the friendship that unites those people. Beyond differences of gender, of age, of sexual orientation, they are all friends. There is a certain gentleness, a certain civility about the characters that counter balances their cynicism. And it was part of the context of the production as well. Making this film was a very pleasant experience for me. We spent a month shooting in a wonderful location, with actors who were friends, and who enjoyed working on the film as much as I did, I think. During production we did not know if the film would have any success at all, and it was not really important. The pleasure of working together was what mattered. So the context and the subtext of the film converge and it is all part of the meaning of The Decline. But most people missed it. I am very happy that at least one reviewer perceived it, because that is part of what I wanted to say. One must admit that despite the globel irrelevance of Canada, there are advantages to living here. If there were none, I would not live here and neither would you.
[ snip ]
But you did it again with Jesus of Montreal, your second big internatinoal triumph. What gave you the idea of making a film about a modern-day Jesus?
When I was doing the casting for The Decline a young actor came to audition for the role of Alain, the graduate student. When I asked him about his previous acting experience he told me he was playing the role of Jesus in a passion-play put on by the Oratoire St-Joseph on Mount Royal. This notion of an actor playing Jesus struck me as being a fascinating subject for a film. So I wrote a synopsis for my producer, Roger Frappier, who liked the idea. He actually proposed the working title "Jésus de Montréal" and we decided to keep it.
Did you immediately perceive the symbolic potential of this situation -- an actor playing Jesus in Montreal?
No. And I am not sure that I perceive it now either. When I work on a screenplay I do not think about the broad symbolic implications of the film. I only deal with "micro-problems". I work on the structure of the narrative, on the mise en scène, on certain traits of character that are difficult to define. I never ask myself, "is this representative of Quebec society?" or whatever. Critics should ask these questions, not me. I carry with me 50 years of memory, unconscious things for the most part, and all this stuff works its way into my films. For instance, my mother was a Carmelite when she was young, and she raised us with the Gospel. When I started working on Jesus of Montreal I realised that, although I had not read the Bible for years, I could remember the Gospel by heart. I thought I had forgotten everything, but it all came back to me. The Catholic mythology that surrounded me when I was a child all resurfaced in my memory and I put it in the film because it allowed me to examine my own origins. I was a popular filmmaker in my late forties and I wanted to know what had happened to the religious ideals I had when I was 12 or 13. And what I explore in the film is this very personal relationship with my past. Of course, since I am from Quebec, my personal questioning is necessarily inscribed in the broader history of Quebec. But as I was making the film I was not thinking about that at all.
It is the role of the audience to decode all these signifying elements and to combine them into a coherent whole. When I read critical interpretations of my work, such as that of Heinz Weinmann, for instance [see bibliography], I am often very surprised to see all that critics can extract from my films. And I am not saying that to play the village idiot. There are things in my films that I am obviously aware of. But there is also a lot of material that is beyond my control.
One aspect of Jesus of Montreal that seems to have been elaborated very consciously is the link between the theatrical ritual and the religious ritual as two forms of sensual and spiritual spectacle.
Even that was not conscious. I make films about myself, and being an artist raised in a religious milieu, I carry with me traces of deeply rooted spiritual experiences that have affected my artistic expression. I know that this tension is present in the film, but it is not the subject of the film. There are no theses in my films. Their origin is far more mysterious than that. Firstly, there is an image, in the case of Jesus of Montreal, that of an actor playing Jesus. And this image begins to haunt me, and slowly other images crop up, that of an actor dubbing porno films, a visit to the planetarium, and eventually these images start assuming a certain structure, and the film emerges step by step. And it is the same process for the music. As I was starting to think about the film, I bought a recording of Pergolesi's Stabat Mater and somehow it became a part of my obsession. Because it is truly an obsession. When I am preparing a film I think only about my subject. I become a public menace. I forget mycar everywhere. I lock myself out all the time. I become a monomaniac. Eventually it becomes a film. But during the creative process I never know what I am doing, never.
[ snip ]
Your outlook seems to have changed drastically between The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal. At the end of the former, there is not much hope that any of the characters will ever find a way out of the hedonistic dead end. In Jesus of Montreal, on the other hand, there is much more optimism. The production of the passion-play gives meaning to the life of the actors. How do you explain this passage from cynicism to optimism?
It is probably something very personal. What gives me hope, the solution I have found, is cinema. My goal in life is to make the best films I can and to enjoy myself while producing them. Through cinema I justify my existence to myself. Similarly, the actors in Jesus of Montreal find their purpose in life in the production of the play. Like me, they believe in the importance of what they are doing. They devote themselves completely to their art. Daniel even gives his life for his art.
Posted 16 November 2003 - 09:16 PM
Posted 23 December 2003 - 12:00 PM
|"Third world," I thought to myself, and sure enough, one of the characters makes this exact comparison later on.|
The first thing i thought was, "Where is this?" And, "Wasn't Anders just trying to convince us all that health care in Canada is better?"
|The Constance of THIS film has three or four scenes in which she asserts that there must be a God who can forgive the abominable crimes we commit, that embracing the mystery of life is what can save us, and so on, and if any other actress had played this role, I might have expected Arcand to pooh-pooh her naivete. But there is nothing condescending in Arcand's treatment of her (even if her advice is ignored in the end)...|
All true, and true.
|and the fact that she represents a link to Jesus of Montreal, perhaps Arcand's most compassionate and least cynical film, just reinforces the sense I get that Arcand respects this person, even if he cannot quite agree with her.|
Very cool. I think that if i ever made a series of films i'd like for them to intertwine like that. No sequels, no trilogies, just characters that periodically emerge from film to film, some that get left behind while others are gathered along the way. As a director, i can see how they would become a part of your own personal canon, putting the identity of your initials on the films like Hitchcock making a cameo.
|Basically, Remy, the serial adulterer of Decline, is now divorced and estranged from his children, and what's more, he is terminally ill, so all his friends come back to be reunited with him at his bedside.|
Well... Kinda. I'm sure they all had a good time coming back to visit Rémy, and it was probably good for everyone to see each other even on such a dire occasion. However it should be pointed out that the only reason they all came back is because Rémy's estranged son Sébastien paid them to come, and took care of everything for them while they were there. IT should also be noted that Sébastien didn't initially do this for his dad, he did it for his mom. So it's not quite as cheery as your above description.
|the so-called sexual liberation satirized in Decline and has now left these people at death's door with no sense of meaning or purpose or fulfillment?|
Great observation. And that's where my "Solomon" and "Ecclesiastes" comments from the other thread apply.
|When I started working on Jesus of Montreal I realised that, although I had not read the Bible for years, I could remember the Gospel by heart. I thought I had forgotten everything, but it all came back to me.|
It's amazing how no one ever escapes this narrative. It seems that even if we don't immerse ourselves in it, it still chooses to immerse itself in us.
|And what I explore in the film is this very personal relationship with my past.|
This is why i believe film is the greatest medium for modern art. Filmmakers -- at least, the good ones -- are doing this daily, interracting with themselves, their role in this world, their understanding of it, and the conclusions they've come to. They are offering these conclusions as a partial offering of what reality is to them, all on a very personal level. Yet, it doesn't come off as trite as a song, or a piece of structural art, or a poem. You give a film from 90 minutes to three hours or longer of your life, and in that time, the director has the potential to strike at everything you've ever chosen to believe (or not to believe).
|I make films about myself, and being an artist raised in a religious milieu, I carry with me traces of deeply rooted spiritual experiences that have affected my artistic expression. I know that this tension is present in the film, but it is not the subject of the film. There are no theses in my films. Their origin is far more mysterious than that. Firstly, there is an image... |
And this image begins to haunt me, and slowly other images crop up...
Because it is truly an obsession.
WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY can't Christian filmmakers just do this?????!
Edited by stef, 10 May 2004 - 09:28 AM.
Posted 23 December 2003 - 03:08 PM
Posted 23 December 2003 - 03:56 PM
: The first thing i thought was, "Where is this?" And, "Wasn't Anders just
: trying to convince us all that health care in Canada is better?"
Well, perhaps this falls into that Quebec-is-a-distinct-society category.
: However it should be pointed out that the only reason they all came back
: is because Rémy's estranged son Sébastien paid them to come, and took
: care of everything for them while they were there.
Ah, good point. Since Rémy's friends seemed to genuinely enjoy being in his presence again (as opposed to those university students, who were clearly faking it), I didn't pay much thought to the money part of that.
: WHY WHY WHY WHY WHY can't Christian filmmakers just do this?????!
Good question. Now once more, with feeling.
Posted 05 January 2004 - 08:42 PM
: I have already had someone disagree with my take on it...anyone else
: want to ridicule my love of this film?
Well that depends -- what was the reason for that person's disagreement?
: There is just so much going on in The Barbarian Invasions, it may be
: better just to go back and write a review that tries to explain all the
: cinematic references and link them to Arcand's body of work, and THEN
: explain exactly what is going on in that last wonderful scene.
It has been over three months since I saw this film now, so forgive me for asking, but what IS the last wonderful scene in this film?
BTW, where can one find your review?
Edited by Peter T Chattaway, 08 August 2004 - 11:56 PM.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 12:49 AM
I gotta say, you've made me want to give the film a second chance. I felt utterly indifferent at the end of it the first time. I didn't care about these people because they were just so reckless, so self-absorbed. The son's actions struck me as caring, but also reckless in their own way, and completely arrogant as well. I just wanted to get away from their miserable company.
But you've given me a lot more to think about, and a much broader picture of what's going on ideologically within the film. Thanks for taking the time to write it. Good reviews are gifts to the reader, and that was a gift.
Still, I can't help but think that Remy's sad end is in some way sanctioned by Arcand. All I feel in those scenes is panic and a sense of "NOOOOOO!!!!!" But that is NOT what the filmmaker seems to be feeling or hoping that we will feel.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 02:49 PM
The scene with when Remy talks about that young ladies legs in that film that Stef can't find has really stuck with me. It was interesting to see someone recount their history in terms of the images that dominated them at certain points of their life. I wonder if Arcand was intentionally probing how key the media has become in shaping our loves and desires.
It is interesting that you use the word "arrogant" for the son's actions. I felt the same way about him for much of the film. But at a certain level it could be an arrogance that comes from the superiority he feels looking down at his lecherous dying father.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 02:59 PM
It has been over three months since I saw this film now, so forgive me for asking, but what IS the last wonderful scene in this film?
In the last scene Sebastien takes Nathalie to his father's house and just gives it to her because he really doesn't need the money he could get from selling it. They are walking through a hallway and they stop, look at each other, and embrace in a very passionate kiss (mostly initiated by her). Mid-kiss she puts her hands on his chest and gently pushes him away and he immediately leaves.
So in essence they choose not to indulge in the sins of their parents BUT at that moment they do catch a whiff of the sort of passion that led their parents to infidelity. It is a very tender moment in which two very broken kids fall into each other for a mere moment and experience an incredible sympathy for each other.
Arcand really is an incredible director. There were a number of visual sequences in the film that were simply stunning. Right after the first shot, where we follow the nurse through the crowded hallways I knew I was going to love the film. I don't know how Arcand did the shot, but it was a great effect.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 03:18 PM
|The scene with when Remy talks about that young ladies legs in that film that Stef can't find has really stuck with me. It was interesting to see someone recount their history in terms of the images that dominated them at certain points of their life. I wonder if Arcand was intentionally probing how key the media has become in shaping our loves and desires.|
Just for the record, i think that scene perfectly encapsulates the thrust of the film's motif. Here we have (in Heaven Over the Marshes) a film in which the main character is a fourteen year-old girl who instead of enjoying "the pleasures of sin for a season" resists the sexual advances of a desirous farmhand. It's a film Bazin called "a rarity; a good Catholic film." Yet Rémy, when obsessing over and reflecting on his attitudes toward this spiritual film, seems to miss any of the noble themes in it, and instead only concentrates on what he has focused on for his entire life -- hedonism. I think Arcand must have chosen this particular film on purpose; it is the perfect symbol that sums up Rémy's entire life: he is the most well-read, learned man, a professor who exudes knowledge and understanding, yet is incapable of wisdom, and is dying as a shallow and empty figure -- a shell that has not found anything substantial to fill the core of its being. The fact that on his deathbed he sees these scenes again drives the point even further home. The more i consider it, what we've stubled on here is as deep a statement by a director as anything we've seen this year, and its spoken perfectly thru the language of film in a way that no script could ever touch.
Edited by stef, 10 May 2004 - 09:28 AM.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 03:33 PM
That was some good stuff. I would add that the reason Arcand gets this across so well is that somehow his script takes on a life of its own and we really stand as a voyeur, able to see things about these people that they themselves can't. As you say, Remy is incapable of wisdom. As he talks about this beautiful young girl we watch the footage play and it is beautiful. This ancient film, a brief image that is unbelievably delicate and charming, a perfect romantic moment they likes of which anyone that has ever been in love will immediately understand. But as we see it we hear Remy talking about how he fantasized so long about her. So pure and he drags it into his dirty little hole.
And the people listening to him adore his little anecdote. The second time we see her, when he is on his deathbed, I said to Remy in my mind: You missed that. There is a purity to that cinematic moment that you were incapable of understanding. It really was a sad connection for Arcand to make.
The reason I was so enchanted by this film is that it was perfectly crafted. At every moment Arcand was instilling a chilling depth to these characters. There was nothing willy-nilly. Every thing had such a clear point, you could see Arcand striving to make a really really good film.
Posted 06 January 2004 - 03:51 PM
I'm still not done with my Top 10 list because i can't seem to whittle it down from about 14, but this one and Stevie are films that have stayed with me longer than some that were on the original list i made last -- what was it? -- October or something.
Posted 29 January 2004 - 02:04 AM
Jeffrey Overstreet wrote:
: Still, I can't help but think that Remy's sad end is in some way
: sanctioned by Arcand. All I feel in those scenes is panic and a sense of
: "NOOOOOO!!!!!" But that is NOT what the filmmaker seems to be feeling
: or hoping that we will feel.
I'm surprised you feel that way, because one thing this film did very, very well was create in me a sense of that panic that The End Is Coming, not just for Rémy but for all of us, sooner or later. Watching 20 years' worth of Woody Allen films a couple years ago, I remember thinking his obsession with death didn't move me any more the way it did when I was a teenager, but watching The Barbarian Invasions, wow, I did begin to panic. (The scene in the van especially stands out in my mind, as Rémy says something like "If only I had LEARNED something...")
: It's a film Bazin called "a rarity; a good Catholic film." Yet Rémy, when
: obsessing over and reflecting on his attitudes toward this spiritual film,
: seems to miss any of the noble themes in it, and instead only
: concentrates on what he has focused on for his entire life -- hedonism.
: And the dialogue was perfect.
You'll be happy, then, to note that the film was nominated for a Best Screenplay Oscar as well as Best Foreign Language Film yesterday -- something that was quite unexpected, and widely celebrated this side of the border (along with the Best Animated Film and, surprisingly, Best Song nominations for The Triplets of Belleville, which was a Canadian-French co-production; much of it was animated here, and the composer lives in Quebec, IIRC).
Anyway, someone somewhere asked what we Canadians make of this film's portrayal of our health care system -- well, here's a front-page column from today's issue of Canada's quasi-conservative national newspaper.
- - -
Denys Arcand deserves an Oscar
Invasions diagnoses what ails Canada
Wednesday, January 28, 2004
For Canada's film nationalists, it looks like a good week. For Canada's Marxists, a group that significantly overlaps the former, it's decidedly a mixed bag.
At the Sundance Film Festival, The Corporation won a documentary award, much to the delight of the self-described West Coast anarcho-socialists who created the dreadfully long diatribe against free markets and capitalism. Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, nominated yesterday for two Academy Awards, is everything The Corporation is not.
While The Corporation, created by Vancouver's Mark Ashbar and Joel Bakan, is a head-hammering leftist polemic, Arcand's Barbarian Invasions is a mercilessly anti-leftist send up of all the Marxist cliches and conventional wisdoms that have dominated Canadian political discourse since the 1960s.
Arcand's award-winner is not just a Quebec movie that takes aim at Quebec society. It is, instead, a blistering satire of things Canadian, from its health care system to its unions and its soggy intellectuals and mealy-mouthed bureaucrats.
Best of all, The Barbarian Invasions is truly a North American movie, which may explain why Canadian reviewers generally gave Invasions tepid reviews when it was released last year, while mainstream U.S. reviewers soon began listing it as one of the top 10 movies of the year.
The main opening sequence in Barbarian Invasions deserves an award in itself. It's a mini-masterpiece of the old film staple, the long shot. The camera, in a stretch that seems to run several minutes in a single shot, rolls through a series of hospital corridors jammed with stray equipment, patients hanging on gurneys, bedraggled nurses and doctors, workers struggling with patchwork construction, and high-voltage cables strung like ribbons across the ceiling. It's one of the funniest and most elaborate putdowns of Canada's health care system ever created.
We're in the hospital because Remy, the central character, is dying of cancer. Remy is an ageing leftist university professor whose career stalled years before he retired, perhaps back when he thought the Cultural Revolution in China had been a great leap forward. Remy's son, Sebastien, is now a wealthy securities broker based in London. He's fluently bilingual, fast, decisive, determined. He is, in short, a raving capitalist, an employee of one of the companies ridiculed in The Corporation.
How the son and Remy's family and friends deal with his cancer is a heart-wrenching story, personal and emotional. It would be a crime to talk too much about the ending, except to say that it deals with moral issues of life and death with shocking honesty. Few movies have had the courage to tackle death with such a sharp focus on individual choice and freedom.
Even as it deals with the horrors of terminal cancer and death, The Barbarian Invasions charges forward with an unwavering sense of political incorrectness. It's certainly the most incorrect anti-leftist work in the history of Canada's flabby record of earnest nationalist filmmaking. From scene to scene, as he tries to get the health care system moving for his father, the son spends most of his efforts scrambling over the products of the clapped-out ideologies of the last three decades.
What a parade! There's the jargon-spewing hospital administrator, corrupt union bosses who control all work at the hospital, pompously ineffectual police officers. In the end, Sebastien gets his father installed on a floor of the hospital that had been shut down by the bureaucrats to save money while they shoved patients into over-crowded wards. Once installed, Remy becomes what no Canadian dares to talk about -- a private-paying patient in a two-tier system. That's after Arcand sets up a couple of scenes around the need to go down to the United States for tests and treatment.
Barbarian Invasions is a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, a 1986 sex-and-ideas comedy. Many of the characters are the same, only 15 years older and wiser. And funnier. These people buried their anti-corporate ideas years ago. And so, apparently, did Arcand himself. "I was a quasi-Marxist," he told the Toronto Star last November. "What saved me in fact was that I was primarily a filmmaker, so I wasn't really an intellectual like my friends in universities where ... they were at one time Marxists and sometimes Trotskyites or whatever." Arcand says he "flirted" with all of this, but then he had to move on to make the best films he could. "So it saved me in a way."
The commentary built into the movie covers scores of topics, including the Catholic church, bungling governments and drug addiction. One of the characters, the heroin-addicted young daughter of one of Remy's old friends, plays a pivotal role in relieving Remy of his pain and suffering.
Some American reviewers cast Invasions as anti-American, although that's hardly a clearly identifiable theme. There are links to 9/11, including shocking video of the attack on the World Trade Center. Yet Arcand is "maddeningly unclear about just what all this adds up to," as U.S. reviewer Peter Brunette of George Mason University put it.
Well, as I see it, The Barbarian Invasions adds up to a fresh Canadian statement of individual responsibility, bordering on libertarianism, grounded in some kind of freedom that rejects three decades of muddled leftism and quasi-Marxism. Some day, maybe 15 years from now, a new Denys Arcand will make an equally pointed film about the foolish ideologies of the guys who created The Corporation.
Posted 15 February 2004 - 02:36 AM
I think the fundamental question is, what are we supposed to think of Remy?
|I don't think we are supposed to excuse Remy at all.|
|Still, I can't help but think that Remy's sad end is in some way sanctioned by Arcand.|
I'll go further than Jeffrey and argue that we're supposed to be happy for Remy and see his dissolute life as somewhat sad, but at least he lived life to the fullest. But before I get to that argument, I'll let Leary have his say (taken from a private email).
|I think Arcand even goes as far as to make fun of Remy. His friends have to be paid to show up and spend time with him. Towards the end all these people sit around and say: Remember when we were Maoists? Oh yeah, and then Structuralists? Oh yeah, and then Deconstructionists? Oh yeah, etc... At times they just look like flakes. And Remy's one moment of clarity, the one recitation of his personal history is a personal history of the women he has masturbated to over his life. Despicable stuff, Arcand almost makes us see him as a silly stupid man. Especially in the scene where we see him at his last class. He really isn't valuable. He is out of date and has no function academically any more.|
All of this is true, but you've overlooked the entire tone of the film, which is generous to a fault. Yes, the friends are paid to show up, though, as with Peter, I forgot that point, since the friends are clearly so happy to see Remy. Not only are they happy to see him, but they're thrilled to re-live the dissolute parts of his life. They laugh at his memories, they take joy in his stupidity. Even his lovers get together and bask in the glow of this man who enjoyed life so much. The ex-wife and the lovers stand around his bedside, happy to swap stories, smile, and remember how much fun they had with Remy. We're clearly supposed to admire someone who took pleasure in pleasure, since that's true of all his friends as well.
This is confirmed by the movie's politics.
|Political ideology does not interest me at all anymore. Many of the collective movements in which I once took part, directly or indirectly, seem to lead to a dead end.|
I appreciate this quotation, as it's obvious from the film. Let's go back to the scene that Leary uses--the one in which Remy reminisces about his various political philosophies. He dismisses his various passions--Maoism, Structuralism, Deconstructionism--as the follies of a younger man. He chuckles at his superficial politics in the same way he chuckles at his various affairs. In fact, his only regret regarding his politics is that his passion for the Cultural Revolution prevented him for having sex with a particularly beautiful Chinese woman.
I'm sorry, but I have a real problem with a movie that treats politics as something unimportant and trivial. Having watched The Burning Wall this week--a fantastic documentary about the creation and dissolution of East Germany--I'm sympathetic to the argument that all dogmatic political philosophies end in tyranny, but the alternative isn't to throw out politics altogether. Also, it's simply immoral to laugh at your support of the Cultural Revolution and regret that you didn't get to bed yet another woman. The Cultural Revolution can not be so easily dismissed. And I don't believe that you can say Arcand is making fun of Remy here. Given the quote that Peter graciously posted, it's obvious that Arcand feels similarly to Remy. If he wanted to actually deconstruct Remy's politics, he'd focus more on the tyranny of Remy's beliefs, helping the audience understand why they're facile. But that's not important to Arcand. The memory serves merely as another experience to laugh at, with absolutely no hint of contrition, repentance, or redemption. In fact, the clear indication is that the only thing Remy is sorry about is that he opened his big mouth in front of the Chinese woman.
Ditto on the movie's attitude towards fidelity and adultery. I know that stef and Leary make a big point of Arcand's use of Heaven over the Marshes, but that just completely ignores the movie's much greater emphasis on how all his women get along. Look at how happy they are, look at how indulgent they are. They represent the mature attitude that overlooks Remy's infidelities in favor of his pursuit of pleasure. If you doubt that, then what about the many stories involving Remy's friends and their own infidelities? There's certainly no condemnation of them. Those are just a part of their refined personalities.
|In the last scene Sebastien takes Nathalie to his father's house and just gives it to her because he really doesn't need the money he could get from selling it. They are walking through a hallway and they stop, look at each other, and embrace in a very passionate kiss (mostly initiated by her). Mid-kiss she puts her hands on his chest and gently pushes him away and he immediately leaves.|
You know, I don't see this in any way as a triumph. I wouldn't be at all surprised if Arcand made a third movie in which these two characters get together. Sebastien is about to have a baby, and yet he's ready to commit adultery in a flash. Does anyone think his marriage has a hope of surviving? No, not unless his wife takes the view of Remy's ex-wife and lovers, which is to embrace the pursuit of pleasure.
The character of Nathalie strikes me as the most egregious one in the film. I'll ignore the movie's attitude towards heroin for a moment, but we can't ignore the fact that Nathalie is the most beautiful junkie ever seen on film, and we've seen some beautiful junkies. There are apparently no bad effects of her habit. The movie also clearly sees the scenes between Remy and Nathalie as the centerpieces of the film--heroin as a substitute for the communion wafer, getting high as part of the transcendent pursuit of pleasure. And then, in another of the movie's bafflingly unrealistic moments, Nathalie is able to kick her habit. How? Just because. Apparently, hanging out with Remy has transformed her into a better person. I'll make sure I suggest that to my drug counselor friends--if you want to help someone kick the habit, just make sure they take lots of heroin. C'mon. Pure wish fulfillment, as is so much of this movie.
And not to dump on Leary and stef, but I think you have to consider the audience for this film. How many people are going to see the film as a rebuke of Remy? Very, very few. Roger Ebert didn't.
|Dying is not this cheerful, but we need to think it is. \"The Barbarian Invasions\" is a movie about a man who dies about as pleasantly as it's possible to imagine; the audience sheds happy tears. The man is a professor named Remy, who has devoted his life to wine, women and left-wing causes, and now faces death by cancer, certain and soon. His wife divorced him years ago because of his womanizing, his son is a millionaire who dislikes him and everything he stands for, many of his old friends are estranged, and the morphine is no longer controlling the pain. By the end of the story, miraculously, he will have gotten away with everything, and be forgiven and beloved.|
Certainly "non-believers" that I've talked to found it an engaging story about friends coming together to bond in someone's final days. They were touched by the warm camraderie on display and the movie's celebration of pleasure. No condemnation, no repentance necessary, no real desire to change even. Nathalie just turns her life around without any effort whatsoever. The others don't need to change at all; they just need to be warm and fuzzy. As far as I'm concerned, that's one of the worst kinds of immorality.
It's not that I hate the film. The characters are delightful, and the easygoing charm is hard to resist. But it is simply an immoral movie, and I don't think that's debatable. But let the debate begin.
Posted 15 February 2004 - 11:03 AM