The Barbarian Invasions

Decline and fall reloaded

Reputation is a fickle thing. You may not remember Québécois film-maker Denys Arcand, but in the late Eighties, he was as modish as those other now-forgotten figures Percy Adlon, Jean-Jacques Beineix and (painful but true) Wim Wenders. Arcand's international breakthrough was his comedy The Decline of the American Empire (1987). In this acidic take on Chekhovian pastoral, a group of middle-aged academics gather at a country house, pleasantly swapping sexual reminiscences until the cracks appear in their complacent exteriors and it all turns sour.

Watching Decline... again this week made me think that - imagine this if you can - the 1980s must have been a kinder, gentler time indeed, since Arcand's satire, cruel as it once seemed, now looks benignly jovial.

The benchmark for moral black comedy about the spoilt, savage bourgeoisie has since been raised considerably by Neil LaBute (whose own days in fashion might be numbered, given recent screen form).

Arcand has now achieved a surprise comeback, with his new work The Barbarian Invasions up for Best Foreign Language Film in the Academy Awards. The film has its pros and cons, but you can't fault it for ambition: it not only muses on life and death, but also undertakes fairly comprehensive philosophical soundings of the way the world is today. This is not quite a sequel to Decline..., nor even Decline: The Next Generation, but a little of both. Arcand uses familiar characters as the starting point for a new meditation on change, the way novelists rather than film-makers tend to: he revives Rémy and his fellow academics in the same way that Updike got extra mileage out of Rabbit or Roth out of Zuckerman. As this suggests, The Barbarian Invasions is a somewhat literary film, certainly a very wordy one.

In the first film, Rémy (Rémy Girard) was an improbable Lothario, a chubby smiler with his hair in a buffoonish flop. Now he's shaven-headed, dying of cancer and cursing the world and his lost opportunities. He wishes he had done something more worthwhile - like writing The Gulag Archipelago - and while he congratulates himself on his old-school libertine's love of women, his enduring passion is for the ones he adored from afar, including a Chinese cultural delegate, Julie Christie and an obscure 1940s Italian film actress.

Times have indeed changed: in Decline..., Rémy and his chums lived in pampered splendour. Now he languishes in an overcrowded, decaying Montreal hospital ward: the film's strongest image is of labyrinthine corridors crammed with stretchers, like a scene in wartime. Quebec's health system is crumbling and run by jargon-spouting bureaucrats, while the real power lies with a corrupt, thuggish union: it's all gone to hell in a handcart, in other words. This is the sort of grouchy state-of-the-world address you might expect from a disillusioned male film-maker of a certain age: something of a Kingsley Amis movie, as it were.

While Rémy's formerly rampant old coterie cluster round his bedside, the strongest presence in his life is his financial whiz-kid son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a caricature of a mobile-touting, laptop-tapping Young Turk. Rémy is caustic about Sébastien's technophilia and indifference to the written word, but awestruck at his executive prowess and ability to mint money. To a hard-line old Québécois socialist, Stéphane represents a frighteningly American type: a confident smoothie who breezes through any doors he pleases, greasing bureaucrats' palms, negotiating overtime with the unions, and moving mountains to make his father's death a happier one.

Not the least of Sébastien's achievements is to procure Dad comfort-giving heroin. Much of the film's gentle black comedy lies in the old raging sourpuss blossoming into good humour as he discovers smack; and its weakness and unreality show in an entirely feeble scene where Rémy suffers withdrawal agonies. Nevertheless, the drug theme allows Arcand to introduce the film's one truly human and sympathetic character, young addict Nathalie. Marie-Josée Croze, whose performance won the Best Actress award in Cannes, has simply the most nuanced presence here: thoughtful, introspective, with a reassuring warmth and lack of cartoonishness. The film breathes when Nathalie appears, simply because Croze is acting in a film, whereas most of the older players seem to go for a sort of Falstaffian drawing-room farce.

A particularly unsettling moment comes when Rémy and his old gang sit around chuckling about how they went through all the "isms" of the 20th century, from existentialism to deconstructionism. It's hard to think of anything more depressing than intellectuals casually sloughing off their former fervent beliefs, as if they were as disposable as their old sexual adventures. This might be Arcand's criticism of his characters as merely skin-deep thinkers, yet this brisk devaluing of entire thought systems feels like an own goal on Arcand's part, if he's really worried that the age of the intellect is over.

Peevish and self-congratulatory as the film sometimes is, it does at least intend to make us think - and Arcand expects that any audience worth its salt will want to. The film's most suggestive idea is the one implicit in the multi-layered title. One invasion is that of the cancer cells overpowering Rémy's body; another is the advent of young capitalists like Sébastien, who have no use for the previous generation's intellectual codes. It's also the invasion of francophone Canada by American values, and, explains a policeman, of Montreal by various waves of drug dealers. A TV soundbite historian also talks of September 11 as marking the beginning of a barbarian invasion of the American empire.

Direct references to the Twin Towers, especially this fleeting, unfailingly make a film look glib. The point is, however, that all of these apparent terrors have their reverse: Islam is not just a source of fear for America but also represents a cultural system that Rémy's generation never properly began to attend to; Sébastien's entrepreneurial slickness is the only thing that improves Rémy's decline; heroin ensures him a happy death; and so on. The lesson - everything has two sides, it all depends where you stand - may be banal, but the film's ambivalence, and ultimate emphasis on the positive, redeems it from being purely a curmudgeon's lament. Finally, the film is as much about fear and misunderstanding of the unknown as it is about social decline.

Arcand finally gives his characters a mawkishly cosy send-off, a firelit reconciliation around the lakeside of the first film. It's even hinted that one of the young 'uns might pick up the occasional book.

The Barbarian Invasions is a film about today that doesn't, for the most part, seem a film of today: rather, it feels like a momentary resurgence of the sort of cinema of ideas (but not always of images) that Rémy might once have enjoyed. At best it's an enjoyably provocative anomaly, at worst a dyspeptic On Golden Pond for old lefties.

j.romney@independent.co.uk

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