The Decline & Fall of the American Empire [1986] and The Barbarian Invasion [2002]

Diane (Louise Portal), who used to be married to Robert, is having an affair with Mario (Gabriel Arcand), who likes to tie her up to radiators and flog her with a leather belt (she likes it too). Claude (Yves Jacques) cruises gay hangouts for anonymous partners. Pierre (Pierre Gurzy), who was married to Susan and now lives with Danielle (Genevieve Rioux), who works in a massage parlour, prefers prostitutes. Dominique (Dominique Michel) sleeps with Pierre, Remy (Remy Girard), some of her students, a few fellow professors, and Sicilian policemen. Remy, the real hedonist in the group, beds Vietnamese call girls,

American hitchhikers, Diane, Dominique, occasionally his wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) and, according to Dominique, "half of Montreal". In the words of one of his students, Remy is an "international donor". To say that this circle of friends is sexually absorbed is, to put it mildly, an understatement. And if each is a willing participant in this revolving sexual circus, Remy is the ringmaster. As he tells his friend Pierre: "I once visited a brothel on my way to my mistress. Try explaining that to a woman."

The Decline Of The American Empire (1986), Canadian director Denys Arcand’s invigorating comedy of modern manners, chronicles a single day and night in the lives of a group of academics who meet at a lakeside cottage for dinner. The first half of the picture separates the males and females, and sets up the dramatic payoffs that dominate the concluding scenes. At a Montreal athletic club the four women gather to primp and preen their aging bodies and to discuss (endlessly, obsessively) their sexual exploits. Meanwhile, at Pierre’s summer home outside the city, the males prepare dinner and sample wine, all the while debating – what else? – sex.

To Arcand’s credit, the script (which he wrote) does not attempt to ingratiate any of these wayward characters to the audience. Louise is a bore (no wonder Remy cheats on her). Pierre is morose. Dominique is insufferable. Remy is a cad. Only Danielle is truly likable, not the least for her charming ability to service her massage parlor customers while describing, in learned detail, the social traditions of western Europe circa 1000 A.D.

But for all its barbs, The Decline…also shows empathy for its gallery of rogues, and the first half of the film echoes not so much Bunuel as Woody Allen. When Mario, the outsider, complains that all the academics do is talk about sex instead of performing it, they react with dismay. They’re intellectuals, after all, and this is what intellectuals do. They talk. They make lofty pronouncements (the American Empire is in decline, the bureaucracy is failing, marriage is obsolete). And when they get tired of talking, they settle back to listen to one of them lecture on a tape!

Near the end of the movie the narrative tone subtly changes, wry satire giving way to a kind of elegy accentuated by Francis Dompierre’s elegant score and cinematographer Guy Dufaux’s luminous still-life frames of the lake at sunrise. And it’s a testament to Arcand’s sure control of the material that this shift in tone seems perfectly natural. Remy and Louise’s marriage is probably over. Claude has a mysterious illness. The precise, understated final compositions – Louise playing a piano, Remy gazing out a window, Diane comforting Claude – poignantly foreshadow the dramatic concerns of Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions (2003), the film in which many of these same characters reappear, seventeen years later.

It ‘s 2001 now, and the world has irrevocably changed, and Remy is dying. While the images of the World Trade Center attack (the barbarians invade) flicker across a TV screen in the hospital, Remy greets his old friends with the same sexual exuberance, the same lust for life, he displayed in the earlier film. But the circumstances are much different. Claude is healthy now, and living in Rome with a handsome Italian lover. Remy and Louise have long since divorced. Pierre, in late middle-age, is the proud father of two infant daughters. Dominique, who once slept with almost anyone, now sleeps alone.

And time has taken its usual toll. The joie de vivre that characterized the performances in the earlier film has been replaced by wistful reflection, sexual bravado tempered by the regrets that come with age. Again and again Arcand fades to black, the color of mortality. When Remy’s son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), a successful investment banker in London, learns of his father’s dire prognosis, he reluctantly flies home to Montreal, setting into motion the shaky reconciliation that anchors the film.

Although they share a common bloodline, Remy and Sebastien are perfect opposites. By embracing the world of finance and rejecting the world of books, Sebastien has turned his back on the father who destroyed the marriage that produced him. As Remy tells his nurse: "My son is an ambitious and puritanical capitalist, whereas I was always a sensual socialist." Remy has the words, but Sebastien, a man of the real world (not the ivory tower of academia), has the ways and the means, and Arcand precisely details Sebastien’s efforts to assure that his father’s final days are spent in as much comfort as money and know-how can provide. He bribes the hospital staff to secure a private room. He arranges medical tests outside the country. And when he learns that heroin is more effective against pain than morphine, he sets out, in his efficiently dogged fashion, to find a supplier for the drug.

In a subplot that cleverly mirrors Remy and Sebastien’s bitter estrangement, Arcand introduces Diane’s daughter Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), a heroin addict who hasn’t spoken to her mother in months. Nathalie agrees to buy Remy’s heroin and to administer the increasing dosage his illness will demand. As Nathalie, Croze brings a touching vulnerability to her non-stereotypical portrait of a modern junkie. There’s a deep core of sadness inside Nathalie, and her scenes with Remy are tender and revelatory, two wounded souls discovering their common humanity. When Nathalie slides a needle into Remy’s arm, she does so with the same sense of awe as the Catholic nurses who provide the sacred hosts to the other dying patients in Remy’s ward.

Although Arcand reportedly baulked at the idea of calling The Barbarian Invasions a sequel, the deeply affecting conclusion completes the narrative circle sketched in the earlier film. Remy, and his family, and his lifelong friends, return to the lakeside cottage. Once more Claude prepares a sumptuous meal. Once more the wine that Remy is now too ill to consume is served. And once more the film takes on the autumnal glow of old paintings, an eloquent mosaic of light, clouds, water, timber and wind. A dying man gazes up at the trees that, for the moment, still shelter him, and quietly bids goodbye.