Cinema Signal:

Living with Life-Threatening Illness:
A Guide for Patients, Their Families, and Caregivers

. "The Barbarian Invasions" (aka, Le Declin Continue)
[Editor's note: the accented "e" character doesn't translate well in many browsers. We therefore use the plain "e", with apologies to the French and French Canadians]

I can't remember a film that's so flawed and, at the same time, hangs onto enough engaging vitality to remain as entertaining as this one does. And, it does it while presenting the themes of mortality and relationships with an abundance of philosophizing that could gag you with theorems and reflections on life. In a good natured and well-intentioned way, it steals its structure and some of its plot from "The Big Chill."

Remy (Remy Girard), a fifty-plus man of lustful adventurism and career disappointments is diagnosed with untreatable cancer. You wouldn't know it from his robust complaints and stream of bragaddocio from his hospital bed in Quebec, Canada. We hear plenty about his legions of mistresses, as he goes through the process of accepting his inevitable end. Later, he's mortified by what he sees as limited accomplishments in his career as an ex-Marxist professor of history. Chief among his denials is the need to see his London-based rich financial wizard of a son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), from whom he has grown estranged, probably because of contradictory value systems.

But Remy's ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) knows better about who needs what and applies her maternal and ex-wifely wisdom and influence. When she notifies Sebastien of Remy's affliction, he's on the first plane with fiancee Gaelle (Marina Hands). The two men make the most of the awkward reunion and the devastating circumstances as we come to fully realize the extent of male stubborness in the family. It's in the genes.

Sebastien turns out to be a candidate for sainthood, though, as his money and influence turns the situation into one of total support for papa. Not only are all of Remy's old Marxist allies brought from far and near to accompany their dying comrade, but when the medical analysis that the patient's comfort is better achieved with heroin than morphine he finds drug addict Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze). He hires her to obtain the drug from her sources and inject Remy on an ongoing basis, in exhange for her own supply. How this self-styled junky is affected by this familial contact is one of the pleasures of the film.

Now, about those flaws: the worst one is that Remy's growing pain and weakness is not sufficiently portrayed to convince us that a controlled, self-administered death is preferable to any other. The closest we come to witnessing pain is when he goes into withdrawal when Natalie misses her regular treatment. Otherwise, Remy appears capable of jumping out of bed, humping the nurse, or engaging in the verbal flow that salts and saps the drama.

Besides that flaw, the supporting cast is about as magnetic as the California governor (the one they're recalling, well named Grey Davis). It seems that a whole lot of dependence on prior success in the Canadian film market went into filling out this troupe of players.

But, that's the supporting cast. The main cast is another story. Remy Girard seems as fun loving and energetic as his character and takes you along even when writer-director Denys Arcand's dialogue banter approaches nausea. The slow emergence of parental love toward his son is nicely controlled as it emerges from behind the verbal mask.

For his part, Stephane Rousseau plays the reluctant son with a certain amount of whimsy and what might seem distance, which he correctly senses he can do given the actions he takes. They indirectly express the love he feels for his dying father. This actor's physical similarity to David Duchovny serves him well in Canada where he's regarded as the "Brad Pitt" of comedy.

On the opposite end of the scale, a great pleasure of this movie is discovering the saucy talent of Marie-Jozee Croze going through her stages of full addiction bordering on overdose to methadone controlled withdrawal. This role and her performance is a major contibutant to the emotional coherence of the picture. Croze won the Best Actress Award at Cannes for this portrayal and she'll win you over as well. Promise.

While this film is awash in talk and ideas about politics, war, philosophy and the September 11th attacks (which the English title alludes to), providing an outlet for the gamut of filmmaker Arcand's heavy thoughts and ideas, its essential emotional container stays afloat and reaches its destination... or should I say, destiny? It's a risky style, and we're glad that it succeeds. We don't, however, sense a mainstream hit here. But, if you liked "The Secausus Seven", "My Dinner with Andre", and "The Big Chill", consider this a must on your reading... uh... movie list.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner
                                  Jules Brenner  

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No, that's not David Duchovny on the right, it's Stephane Rousseau,
and he's with the rest of the gang of Canadian thespians.

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