2003 TIFF Update #2: "After the Decline"

Commentary by James Berardinelli
Friday, September 5, 2003

Ah, the pageantry of Opening Night at a film festival! Everyone dressed to the nines, with tuxes and gowns, caring more about being seen that about the film they're about to see. For film lovers in Toronto, there's an early, low-key screening of the movie, but for the social movers-and-shakers, the 8:00 gala is the place to be. That's where all the cameras are, as well as the politicians and the rich and would-be famous. Oh, and the director and some of the actors are there, too.

Often on Opening Night, the film becomes a footnote, and, considering some of Toronto's recent first features, that's a good thing. (A caveat that limits the field is that the Opening Night Feature must be produced and/or directed by a Canadian.) Last year, for example, Atom Egoyan's Ararat fell with a resounding crash. A few years ago, Denys Arcand's Stardom was greeted with thinly-veiled ridicule. Arcand is back this year with his best film in over a decade, and this is one instance when the movie is deserving of the accolades often heaped upon the Opening Night Feature. The Barbarian Invasions made its successful debut at Cannes, where it walked away with both the Best Screenplay and Best Actress awards (many felt it should also have captured the Golden Palm). Now, it gets the 2003 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival off to an excellent start.

The Barbarian Invasions is a follow-up (calling it a sequel seems too trite for such a sublime motion picture) to Arcand's 1986 international art-house hit, The Decline of the American Empire. Obviously, after the decline and fall, the barbarians arrive. (This seems to be stretching the metaphor too far, but whatever...) Where the earlier movie was about sex and vitality, The Barbarian Invasions deals with an equally universal topic: mortality. However, although the specter of death hovers over the entire film, it is neither a grim nor a depressing experience. Arcand has injected a great deal of wit into the movie, and it meshes perfectly with the anticipated pathos. And one could easily make the argument that The Barbarian Invasions is as much about life as it is about death, and, considering how intertwined the subjects are, it's hard to form a counter-argument.

The film opens with one of the protagonists from The Decline of the American Empire, Rémy (Rémy Girard), facing death. Before Rémy's days are done, his ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), persuades the dying man's estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), to make the trans-Atlantic journey from London to Montreal for a reconciliation. Their initial meetings are not promising, but a thaw begins with Sébastian recruiting many of Rémy's old friends to join him at his bedside. In addition, there is one newcomer - the deeply troubled Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), who is recruited by Stéphane to provide heroin used to dull Rémy's pain. However, as a drug addict, not only is she unreliable, but the potential for an overdose may mean that she has less time to live than Rémy.

The film starts out slowly, and, for a while, looks like it might be just another movie about a fractured family coming to grips with its dysfunction. Indeed, the underlying material of The Barbarian Invasions could easily have been used to develop a soap opera, so Arcand must be given credit for detouring the storyline off the main track and onto a road that, while moving on a parallel trajectory, is less melodramatic and more intellectually satisfying. In the end, our tears are because we identify with these characters, not because the script has ineligantly manipulated our emotions.

The film contains scenes of offbeat comedy. For example, when Sébastian is trying to obtain heroin to ease his father's pain, he deduces that the most likely people to inform him where to find a dealer are the police. So he goes to the nearest police station, asks to see a narcotics officer, and asks his question. He is firmly told that the police are in the business of taking dealers off the street, not providing them with new customers. Aracand finds the right tone for this scene and others like it. It is not so fatuous that it becomes mocking, but the humor in the situation is evident.

The acting is uniformly good, although few of the actors will be known outside of Canadian circles. One exception is Marie-Josée Croze, who won the Cannes acting award. She was a standout in Ararat and has appeared in a number of movies obtaining U.S. theatrical release. In a way, however, having a cast of relative "unknowns" serves only to enhance The Barbarian Invasions' effectiveness, since there are no familiarity issues to get in the way between the viewer and the characters.

This is a movie in which words and interaction take precedence over plot and action - a so-called "character piece." It's a film in which friends gather to meditate upon history, philosophy, and their shared pasts. In many ways, Rémy's death is the kind of passing we might all wish for. He does not suffer for long, goes out on his own terms, and, at the end, is surrounded by his friends and loved ones. He is also given the opportunity to heal old wounds and speak his mind. Who could ask for anything more?

My attendance at the Opening Night film has been irregular over the years, because often the title has not been compelling enough to attract my interest. In this case, I'm glad I arrived early enough to see the movie. If/when it receives U.S. distribution, I highly recommend The Barbarian Invasions to anyone who appreciates movies of sensitivity and substance.

© 2003 James Berardinelli

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