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Even for self-styled auteurs who traffic in fiction and fantasy, the future can be difficult to predict. The historical project is primarily retrospective, with individual forces and events culminating in outcomes which are often clear only after their conclusion. Those who were able to accurately predict the future are herald as visionaries and mavericks, whereas those who arrived at rational but ultimately flawed conclusions are brushed aside in the historical fray. This is to say that predicting the future is a difficult undertaking, and those who endeavor to do so should be granted a certain degree of sympathy for their trouble.
So it is with the first two of Deny Arcand’s films on the subject of North American societal decline, beginning with The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and later with The Barbarian Invasions (2003). These films, separated by two decades, are consistent in their reactionary pitch and subject matter. The first film, The Decline of the American Empire, likens the debauchery of Quebec’s promiscuous intelligentsia to the fall of the Western Roman Empire. The Barbarian Invasions critiques national institutions in addition to individual morality, finding the heady optimism of Post-War Europe taking its last breaths in its greatest proponent, Remy, (Rémy Girard) a Professor Emeritus of History.
Throughout The Barbarian Invasions, the audience is constantly reminded of the shortcomings of the socialist vision. The film opens in the dingy corridors of a Montreal hospital, with a long tacking shot following an orderly as she weaves her way among bedridden patients and overwhelmed staff. We find Remy, in a dingy hospital room flanked at various times with three multiethnic roommates, their families, and exotic foods. The idyllic socialist healthcare system he advocated for in his youth has devolved into a dismal and inefficient reality, controlled by a corrupt union and a byzantine bureaucracy. Remy himself seems unfazed by the institutional chaos around him, consumed instead with the women who throw themselves at his slippered feet, beating their chests in ridiculous, stilettoed mourning. It is clear that even as death draws near, everyone is self-consumed to the point of parody. The communal aspects of socialism have been draped over a pernicious individualism, eroding the social benefits that were meant to be shared by all.
Enter Remy’s son Sebastian (Stéphane Rousseau), a financier from London with deep coffers and deeper resentment. We quickly learn that even in socialist Canada, everyone is willing to make an exception for the right amount of money. In a series of scenes which are so self-contained and pithy that they resemble vignettes, Sebastian systemically bribes the hospital director and the union manager, paying for the refurbishment of a room on a disused floor. When he drives to the local police station, he asks point blank where he can source heroin, and finds a double-dealing police officer who is all too happy to oblige. Sebastian’s actions call the entire societal contract into question, suggesting that law and order is optional for those who are willing to pay for the privilege. (Though it’s said that the cops have the best drugs, Sebastian eventually establishes a supply-line through Nathalie, Diane’s estranged daughter.) Through Sebastian’s connection with a doctor friend, Remy even receives state-of-the-art medical care that would otherwise take months of waiting in Canada, sending the reluctant father-son duo on a break for the American border.
However satisfying the results of Sebastian’s greed is good ethos may be, it is disquieting that the entirety of his success is attributable to his liberal expenditure of capital. Whereas Remy and his friends are defined by their human qualities of inquiry, self-indulgence, and ambition, the character of Sebastian remains nebulous despite his considerable on-screen time, save for his monolithic commitment to the principles of capitalism. The dichotomies that arise between Father and Son are therefore complex and layered. While the sheer force of Remy’s charisma brings ex-lovers, ex-wives, and loyal friends from all corners of the world, Sebastian’s relationships are defined and reinforced by capital. Remy’s fiancée applies economic terms to matters of the heart, with words such as ‘exchange’ and ‘investment’ used to describe their romantic coupling. Sebastian uses the same logic of emotion as commodity when he pays Remy’s former students to wish him well. Even if you can’t have the real thing, Arcand seems to say, you can have a very close approximation. Thus, the dance between the colorful intellectual and the drab financier becomes a debate between the qualified and the quantified, between humanity and capital. Arcand articulates with a resounding cynicism what the modern world has ultimately come to value.
Arcand also refines the definition of Romanesque decline that he cultivated in earlier works. The events of September 11, which made clear to the world that the “end of history” was actually the end of an era, makes an appearance in the film, complete with a brief interlude by a televised academic. While a terrified hospital employee watches the towers fall, Sebastian (“Ah, bon?”) is only interested in the whereabouts of his stolen laptop. After all, no matter what calamity strikes, someone is well positioned to make money. The death of a nation, Arcand seems to suggest, is a function of both internal and external forces, rather than exclusively a product of moral turpitude.
No leftist tour-de-force would be complete however, without explicit commentary on religion. In a scene which comes across as utterly sophomoric in its heavy handed attempt at allegory, Sebastian’s fiancée (Marina Hands), who works with the auction house Sotheby’s, is accompanied by a lecherous priest (“I expected to be sent an old antique dealer, not at all an attractive young girl.”) to view local catacombs overflowing with religious artifacts. The priest expounds that after 1966, churches across the hallowed land of Canada began to empty out. This statement is a clear reference to the year when theologian Charles Davis, publicly denounced and subsequently left the Roman Catholic church in part due to its complicity with the Nazi party. After looking at the apostles shrouded in sacramental cobwebs, the two come to the mutual conclusion that “this is worth nothing at all”. (Boo!)
Thus, when the drywall dust has settled, Remy finds himself in a comfortable, well-lit room, surrounded by his old friends, swilling wine and wielding plates of pasta. None of the so-called socialists seem particularly worried about the desperation and depravity wrought by their socialist healthcare system just a floor above. After all, they’ve put in their thirty years at the local ivory tower. Over the course of the film, they reveal themselves to be at various places on their road to happily ever after, with some farther along than others. Claude (Yves Jacques) is arguably in first place, with a directorship at a Canadian cultural institution in Rome, furnished with a charming Italian husband (Toni Cecchinato). Remy’s wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman) has learned to take his womanizing in stride which led to their divorce twenty years prior. Pierre has married a former student, who has returned an inexplicable blonde with two daughters in hand. Diane (Louise Portal) takes up the rear, (pun intended) with her a cowboy boyfriend and estranged daughter.
Though much has changed, the group’s commitment to hedonism and sensual pleasures remains everlasting. Just as before, Remy and his friends reflect candidly on the joys of promiscuity, basking in nostalgic wonder at their distant idealism. However, the consequences of tireless self indulgence, which were ominously alluded to in the first film, are brought into poignant clarity in The Barbarian Invasions. As the friends’ children grow into adults, the ageing hedonists begin to recognise the damage their selfishness has caused. Both of Remy’s children have grown up to scorn both him and his lifestyle, his daughter choosing to sail around the world, and his son embodying all the values Remy spent his life railing against. However, the most devastating causality is Diane’s daughter Natalie (Marie-Josée Croze), and her downward spiral into heroin addiction. In the dark space of the hospital corridor, Diane’s reaches out in vain to Natalie, only to be spurned in favour of the hypodermic needle. The results of too much fun are suddenly given a profoundly human cost.
While Remy remains relatively estranged from his own children, he finds an intimate muse in Natalie. No longer encumbered with his usual agenda of seduction and posturing, he mourns the books he will never write and the places he will never see. Unlike his other relationships, Remy cultivates a genuine friendship with Natalie over their shared understanding of mortality. Forever on his soapbox, Remy fluctuates between the comfortable role of a sharp-tongued intellectual and the tenuous position of a dying old man, to which Natalie provides patient counsel. When the friends eventually retreat to Pierre’s lake house for Remy’s final days, his personality becomes increasingly compartmentalised. As his friends plaster on smiles around the dining room table, they find that their happy go lucky model of hedonism does not account for the totality of death.
In his final monologue of the film, Remy happily recounts how he shamelessly attempted to seduce a Chinese scholar. He congratulates her on the success of China’s Cultural Revolution, his tongue a red carpet on which theory and eloquence soars, only to come crashing down when he learns that the her family were ruthlessly purged by the Politburo, leaving her to grow up on a pig farm. This is the greatest indictment for Remy and his class of intellectual, the perpetual contrarian, who doesn’t find justification in morality but only in the thrill of debate. Remy and his friends have worked their way through every school of thought, but are left with no real convictions themselves. The academic with all of his lofty ideals is just as morally bankrupt as the rest of the world, his theories are dead, and he is about to follow them.
It has always been fashionable to declare society to be in decline. All great historical initiatives were tempered by the possibility of their failure, and benefit from the gadfly of criticism. However, the Western world has made it this far, and a third film by Arcand called La chute de l’empire américaine was released in 2018, for a new era and its own social ills. So even though the American empire is in perpetual free fall, that doesn’t mean Arcand can’t give it one hell of a funeral.
— Sam Chalekian, May 2020