The Barbarian Invasions

Dying boomer rages against the fading of the light, but the food and company are excellent.

NO ONE'S READY to die, but some are more unready than others. In Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions (which opens Friday, Dec. 26, at the Harvard Exit), cancer-afflicted professor Rémy Parenteau (Rémy Giraud) is broadly pessimistic ("The history of mankind is a history of horrors") yet personally quite livelyeven on his deathbed. He loves to eat, fuck, and talk, as seen 17 years ago in Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire. What's changed since then? Fleshy, selfish, lecherous Rémy was once the unlikely lothario and ringleader of a close-knit academic community at a middling Montreal university. Life was a party, albeit a party with lots of infidelity, betrayal, and tears. Now the chickens have come home to roost. All that heedless self- indulgence has left Rémy alone and his friends scattered. Having published nothing of importance, having had no impact on his bored students, having achieved no lasting monuments to himself besides a fractured family, Rémy despairs, "If at least I'd learned something . . . I haven't found a meaning. I'm a total failure." But he's being too hard on himself in this fine and moving mortal coda to Empire. He's no hero, no King Lear suddenly granted wisdom on the heath, but a spoiled, overgrown baby (boomer) who seizes the chance to grow up at the last possible minute. He's given the opportunity by his estranged son, self-contained London financier Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), who orchestrates and subsidizes an impromptu wake for his father. Rémy dismisses Sébastien as "an ambitious and puritanical capitalist," yet it's this smug young money man who underwrites the food, opiates, and real estate that Rémy and his epicurean cohort hold so dear. Sébastien knows the price of their freedom and precious talk, talk, talkeven while he and his prim fiancée emphatically reject those values themselves. BACK FROM EMPIRE (on Sébastien's nickel) are Rémy's betrayed ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman); faculty colleague Pierre (Pierre Curzi); gay friend Claude (Yves Jacques); and ex-lovers Diane (Louise Portal) and Dominique (Dominique Michel). Sébastien bribes half the hospital to create a posh private suite for his father in an unfinished wing, where Rémy's friends kvetch, commiserate, and cook four-star banquets while the patient chases the dragon with Diane's smack-addict daughter, Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze). Later, the whole "family," as Pierre called the hedonistic horde in Empire, decamps to his lakefront summer homealso seen in that filmfor a last supper to honor Rémy. It all sounds dreadfully depressing, but Invasions is a party enlivened by the warmth of its guests. The film is wonderfully enriched by our memory of the first (well worth renting, but not mandatory, before or after). These familiar faces all bemoan the decline of the flesh, yet 17 years has been long enough to reverse almost all of their cherished assumptions in Empire. Defiant bachelor Pierre is now happily married; formerly promiscuous Claude enjoys a stable relationship; and once weepy, insecure Louise seems stronger for her life alone. Seegetting older isn't so terrible, although you can understand why Rémy is slow in coming around to this point. Although Arcand's scenes do lurch rather haphazardly from one to the next, they're good scenes, well done and well acted in any order, tender but not trite. He allows Rémy to die with the dignity of a final hard-on, like Strom Thurmond to the engorged end, roused by the memory of movie and TV icons from his youth. (If Jack Nicholson's heart attack had been more serious in Something's Gotta Give, you could imagine him in the same role.) Maybe it's a fantasy that we could similarly arrange, if not accept, our demise with loved ones near, but it's a consoling fantasy for the now rueful roué. Rémy doesn't exactly follow the five Kübler-Ross stages of death; instead he wants to argue about them with his buddies. Their debates are unruly, like the film, but they're animated, unlike the similar but overwrought 21 Grams. Invasions ends not with death but with the suggestion that Rémy finally reaches one last student. As one book closes, another is opened.

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