Dark days

Regrets and remorse weigh heavy in Barbarian Invasions

Existentialism, structuralism, feminism. The jaded intellectuals in Denys Arcand's masterful melodrama The Barbarian Invasions tick off a list of the various academic fads they have embraced over the years.

The changing winds of academic fashion turn out to have a surprisingly bittersweet quality. Because, like much of Barbarian Invasions, those fleeting intellectual pursuits seem to suggest that no high ideals or grand passions stand the test of time. This is the dismal epiphany that occurs to the film's lead, Remy (Remy Girard) as he lies dying from cancer in a miserably overcrowded and understaffed Montreal hospital.

Part of the existential chill of Arcand's film is how it addresses not merely his protagonist's despair, but a common global spirit of dashed hopes. Arcand uses the occasion of this one seemingly insignificant death to show an array of small deaths that have occurred around Remy. In Arcand's bruised and hurting world, individual and universal pains abound and the barbarians are many. Grown men still bear the wounds of childhood abandonment by their fathers; a corrupt health care system makes dying more unpleasant than it already is; drug addiction and cancer attack the body; and a post-Sept. 11 world deals with a shared sense of vulnerability.

Remy's successful investment banker son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) has flown in from London to care for his father, and Remy's ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) sits by his bedside.

But instead of a scene of family togetherness in the midst of tragedy, Sebastien's homecoming is far more complicated. Remy's lifetime of skirt chasing alienated his only son and his devoted wife long ago. But bound by duty, Sebastien and Louise nevertheless do everything they can to make Remy's last days comfortable.

Like the unapologetically philandering Remy, the longtime friends who arrive at his bedside to bid him goodbye are fellow sybarites used to good food and sexual adventure. But while his intellectual friends can stand beside his bed, joke and express their love, Arcand conveys the essential loneliness of death. Without religion, without the reassurance of immortality that every roll in the hay with nubile female flesh promised him, Remy confronts the emptiness of his life.

There are no grand confessions or hand-wringing scenes of regret in Barbarian Invasions. This is a far too subtle and scrupulously intelligent film for that. Instead, a portrait emerges of Remy as a pitiable, all too human, even lovable man who naively believed he could find the answers to life's mysteries between a woman's legs. His promiscuity is the false promise all of us live under — the beguiling belief that money or things can postpone death.

Barbarian is the follow-up film, of sorts, to Arcand's 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, which centered on this same, younger, group of clever, irreverent academics (played by the same cast).

Like Decline, the characters in Barbarian Invasions are distinctly unlikable at first glance. Pompous, cynical, hedonistic, they engage in Woody Allen talkathons and crow endlessly about their sexual exploits. But as the film wears on, Arcand's characters begin to wriggle out from beneath the masks of intellectual glibness and reveal their inner workings. It is nearly impossible not to feel profound sympathy for their very human failures and weaknesses.

Much has transpired since Arcand made Decline, both personally and globally. For one thing, Arcand has changed as much as his characters.

"I've grown old," he admits. "It's been 17 years. The first film was me at 40 and this film is me at 60. So I'm a different person in a sense ..." says the Canadian director of Jesus of Montreal and Love & Human Remains during a stop in Atlanta to promote Barbarian Invasions.

"I spend more time in hospitals than I used to when I was 40. Both my parents are dead and some of my friends are already either dead or sick."

Other things have changed too, says Arcand, an erudite man wearing an understated black suit and speaking in French-accented English. He has adopted a child, now 8, and "become a father, which again makes you a different person. Because you experience a type of love that you have never experienced before."

Yes, the world can be grim, Arcand admits. But there is redemption amidst the ugliness, as Remy also learns. Human beings cope by seeking refuge in one another.

"On a private level you can manage little islands of happiness that are as perfect as humanly possible," says Arcand. "When I'm with my daughter, I'm blissfully happy."

Such small slivers of peace may be all any of us can hope for, The Barbarian Invasions affirms.