Denys Arcand’s dynamic triple-bill

You know how some films just grow on you? I saw The Barbarian Invasions (2003) at the Vancouver film festival two years ago, and didn’t get around to seeing it a second time until a few weeks ago — and I find it has occupied my thoughts quite a bit since then.

This is partly because I was working on an article on the subject; and partly because I watched the film on a DVD double-bill with its predecessor The Decline of the American Empire (1986), which I had probably last seen when I was studying Denys Arcand’s films at UBC almost a decade ago; and partly because the closing song — Francoise Hardy’s ‘L’amitie’ — is just one of those really haunting, wistful, elegiac tunes that fits perfectly over the last images of this film, and fit even more when I tracked down the lyrics and ran them through an online translation engine.

It is also partly because, a few nights ago, I finally watched the DVD’s one bonus feature — a 50-minute promotional TV program in which most of the actors sit around a dinner table and discuss the film’s themes and such. (You could say the Canadian DVD offers one other bonus feature, inasmuch as it includes both a longer version of the film and a shorter version, but I have no interest in the shorter version, at this point; apparently only the shorter version is available on the American DVD.)

In one of several excellent posts here, M. Leary observes: “Arcand’s genius is that he has built a drama around a large number of characters that are completely round, even dare I say ‘opaque’. . . . We are allowed to walk around in the story with no leading from the director in any specific direction.” And that interesting mix of sympathy and detachment extends even to this TV program — while all the actors sit around trying to make sense of the characters they played and what their story means to two generations of Quebeckers, we are told that Arcand declined (no pun intended!) to take part in the show because he had said everything he wanted to say in the film itself. But then, in the very last minutes, we hear Arcand’s voice, as he explains the joy he feels when he sees actors give flesh to the characters he has written.

The program is, thus, completely of a piece with the film it was intended to promote. And the actors make some very interesting, even pungent, statements of their own. For example, Remy Girard suggests — a bit too optimistically, I think — that “invasion” is not necessarily a bad thing if it can transform and improve an otherwise stagnant environment; and one actress notes that to give someone the gift of life is also to give them the gift of death (the film is all about terminal illness, and Arcand has said it was motivated by his own realization that he would probably not be around to see his daughter grow as old as he would like).

Why do I say “triple-bill” in the title of this post? Because, while The Barbarian Invasions is a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, Arcand also brings a few characters from Jesus of Montreal (1989) into his newest film. Back in the 1980s, Arcand had kind of intended Jesus as a follow-up or response to Decline — after exploring the dead-end hedonism that comes when people abandon dead-end ideologies, he wanted to push and probe and see if there was any greater, deeper, more mysterious sort of meaning out there — and I think it is very, very interesting that he brought the spirit of Jesus into the world of Decline when he decided to make a sequel to the latter film.

In the articles and lectures I have done on Jesus films, I have always made a point of explaining how Decline provides the social, cultural, political, provincial, moral, and even dramatic backdrop to Jesus of Montreal. Now that characters from Jesus have been explicitly brought into the world of Decline, via Barbarian, I think this point needs to be emphasized even more.

It is especially interesting to see that Constance Lazure (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), the compassionate single mother in Jesus who had the affair with the priest and then went on to join the theatre group founded in Daniel Coulombe’s honour, has gone on to become a nun by the time Barbarian begins. In Jesus, Constance and the other people who found the theatre group seem to represent, allegorically, the “organized religion” that rose up after Jesus died, and the fact that Mireille walks away from the group comes across like an indictment of the others, who may be on the way to losing the purity of Daniel’s vision, just as the Church supposedly lost the purity of Jesus’ vision. So does Constance becoming a nun — a servant of the established Church — make this parallel even more pronounced? Or does it show that she has turned her back on the presumably corrupted theatre group and found something more true, more good, more meaningful? (In fact, now that I think about it, while Barbarian spends a lot of time looking at how the children of Remy and Diane have rebelled against their libertine parents — one by becoming a “puritan capitalist”, the other by becoming a heroin junkie — I find myself wondering what Constance’s offspring made of her decision to become a nun.)

It is also interesting to see that Fr. Leclerc (Gilles Pelletier), the jaded priest who once said that institutions live longer than individuals, is now concerned about the apparent demise of his institution. (In fact, he claims in the new film that the demise of Catholicism in Quebec can be dated to a single moment in the mid-1960s — which may be somewhat at odds with his claim in the earlier film that the churches are regularly crowded with people who come looking for something to believe in.)

The only other character who appears to have returned is the Security Guard played by Gaston Lepage, who worked for the church in the earlier film and now works at the hospital. A few other actors have come back, too, but they seem to be playing different characters — a few, like Remy Girard and Yves Jacques, appeared in both Decline and Jesus and are now reprising their Decline characters, rather than their Jesus characters; while others, like Roy Dupuis, Sylvie Drapeau and Denis Bouchard just seem to have been given different roles altogether.

Gadzooks, that’s a lot more than I intended to say when I started this post. Anyway, all three films are very good on their own, but together, they’re quite the experience.

About Peter T. Chattaway

Peter T. Chattaway was the regular film critic for BC Christian News from 1992 to 2011. In addition to his film column, which won multiple awards from the Evangelical Press Association, the Canadian Church Press and the Fellowship of Christian Newspapers, his news and opinion pieces have appeared in such publications as Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Bible Review and the Vancouver Sun. He also contributed essays to the books Re-Viewing The Passion: Mel Gibson’s Film and Its Critics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2004) and Scandalizing Jesus?: Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ Fifty Years on (Continuum, 2005).


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