Neither a film about a rugby team, nor a politically incorrect Jerry Bruckheimer film, Denys Arcand’s gleefully irreverent black satire boasts wonderful performances and a Cannes-winning screenplay. While ostensibly about a son reconnecting with his father, the film transcends such genre boundaries to combine genuine emotion with incisive social comment.
When Rémy (Girard), an inveterate womaniser whose lust for life affects all those who know him, becomes terminally ill in hospital, his ex-wife asks his estranged son Sébastien (Rousseau), a financial whiz-kid in London, to come and visit him before he dies. This simple premise acts as the film’s structure – Sébastien uses his financial muscle to arrange for his father to be moved from a cramped hospital ward to a private room and then begins to reunite Rémy with his long-lost friends.
Other subplots shimmer at the edge of this chamber-piece – a junkie procures heroin to ease Rémy’s pain, a daughter sailing the Pacific sends touching video messages, and the lives and loves of the friends are painstakingly and joyously sketched. Arcand also finds time to poke fun at Canada’s institutions – union officials are venal, hospitals are over-crowded, the Church seeks to sell off relics to raise cash.
Eagle-eyed viewers will notice that the director has reunited much of the same cast of his 1986 award-winning work, The Decline of the American Empire. Those same characters and actors have now aged, their world-views refined, but the fundamental issues of life, love and revelations have not altered. In that film too, middle-class men and women sat around and talked about sex and convened at a dinner party. Not, then, a sequel as such, but more a chance to see how the intervening years have changed these characters, as played by the same actors. As such, it is a wonderful coup de théatre by Arcand. Indeed, the performances throughout are wonderfully modulated. Special mention should be made of Rousseau, a stand-up comedian in his first dramatic role, and Girard’s showy turn as the cocksure, ultimately pathetic Rémy. Croze walked off with the Best Actress Award at Cannes for the kind of role the French love – introspective, smouldering, combative – and her scene with Rousseau at the close represents one of the more powerful elements of the film. It may only be a kiss, but a kiss loaded with connotation. Sébastien installs her in his father’s home – she is now the custodian of Rémy’s legacy and his son is the means of her rehabilitation.
The portrayal of Montréal is lovingly evoked – Gut Dufaux’s cinematography offsets the cold, frigid hues of the hospital with autumnal gold and browns at the lakeside cabin. Indeed, the scenes at the lake are acerbic and sharp. Characters sit around and conclude that the only ‘ism’ they’ve ever fully embraced is hedonism. What matters here is not political affiliation or personal ideology, but the espousal of a love for life.
And as for the title? Arcand is never less than explicit in his double meanings. On one level, intercut images of the Twin Towers being attacked and a flamboyant academic warning that 9/11 was America’s realisation that the ‘barbarians had invaded’ initially seems out of place in the film’s sentimental dynamics, but in fact remains true to the notion that the American Empire is declining. Moreover, for Rémy, Sébastien represents a kind of barbarian at the gates of the citadel – acquisitive, non-intellectual, a Game Boy player not a Rousseau reader. As is so often the case, father and son are regarded as polar opposites, each threatening the values the other holds dear. In this respect, Arcand’s conclusion – that such dichotomies don’t matter a great deal when death comes calling – may be regarded as essentially old-fashioned, even a little pat, but it is to the film’s credit that such a judgement is framed in such a beguiling way. In 1986 he suggested that the American Empire was declining from within. Nearly twenty years on, immovable forces from without are now the enemy – whether that is video-game culture, Al-Qaida, or terminal cancer.