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'Barbarian' cuts pathos with humor

November 21, 2003|Kenneth Turan | Times Staff Writer

Generous-spirited and bracing, "The Barbarian Invasions" has the casual ease of an old friend met after some time apart, which, given this film's history, is just as it should be.

A prize-winner at Cannes, "Barbarian" is the sequel to writer-director Denys Arcand's "The Decline of the American Empire," a sharp-edged comic drama about a group of too-clever-for-their-own-good French Canadian intellectuals that remains one of Canada's biggest international successes. "Barbarian" is also a sequel that waited 17 years to be made. That time gap (so large it makes having seen the first film irrelevant to enjoying this one) exists because Arcand never intended to make a sequel.

His original goal -- a film about a dying man taking stock -- had "always ended up in bleak, depressing scripts." He thought bringing back the witty crew from the old days would lighten up the scenario without overbalancing things, and he was mostly right.

A rueful comic drama about attempting to make sense of one's life, "Barbarian" is as sentimental and as serious as only that subject can get. It also, thankfully, has Arcand's trademark biting wit, which won him the best screenplay award at Cannes and makes the film's emotions feel more earned and thus easier to accept.

Much of "Barbarian's" energy comes from Remy (Remy Girard), a sybaritic professor of history now dying of an unnamed disease in a hellishly overcrowded Montreal hospital. Even when he was healthy, Remy had a waspish tongue, and now it's the force of his invariably comic invective and fury that initially drives this film.

Ask him what angers him and, like Marlon Brando in "The Wild One," he might answer, "Whaddya got?" Remy rails against an ex-wife (Dorothee Berryman) who's still resentful about his womanizing, he seethes about humanity ("the history of mankind is the history of horrors"), but most of all he is at his wit's end about his son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau).

A self-described "sensual socialist," Remy characterizes his offspring, a London-based investment banker, as "an ambitious and puritanical capitalist," and that's when he's being nice. At other times he screams with venom, "Couldn't he have read one book in his life? Is that asking too much?"

Even when Sebastien arrives at Remy's chaotic hospital bedside with his posh girlfriend (Marina Hands), the considerable enmity between these two does not fade away. This is a father and son whose mutual antipathy feels like a raw wound that doesn't take much to reopen. That Sebastien decides to stay and help his father is somewhat of a contrivance but one we can live with because of what follows. As the super-competent problem-solver Remy never was, his son finds himself with three tasks that demand his attention.

Task 1, providing his father with a better hospital experience, is the film's most out-and-out comic plot strand. Sebastien, wads of cash never far from his hands, works out arrangements with both a craven union and a hospital administrator, not much better, who demurs "we're not in the Third World" as she gratefully pockets the money.

Task 2, the gathering of Remy's old friends and mistresses (and the co-stars of the first film) turns out to be the easiest to accomplish although the most problematical. The difficulty is not that they've all aged (who hasn't?), but that they've grown, if possible, even more smug and pleased with themselves over the years. Hearing them trade tired double-entendres and rhapsodize about old and current loves is, surprisingly, the least involving part of the film.

Remy aside, it's the younger characters who turn out to be "Barbarian's" most attractive. There's Remy's absent-at-sea daughter Sylvaine (Isabelle Blais), whose video messages to her father are among the film's emotional high points. And there's especially Nathalie, the daughter of one of Remy's friends, who Sebastien meets in carrying out Task 3: procuring heroin to help his father cope with increasing pain.

As played by Marie-Josee Croze, who won the best actress award at Cannes, Nathalie is a profoundly edgy junkie, a gamin-like baby Piaf who brings an aura of mystery, unreliability and soulfulness to the part of someone whose thought processes always seem tantalizingly out of reach.

Nathalie is not only interesting in and of herself, but as Remy's connection and fellow user she is also the catalyst for his ruminations about life and death, which turn out to be "Barbarian's" most genuine, deeply felt sections.

For no matter how much he blusters in public, in private Remy is engaged in the difficult, urgent task of coping with his own mortality, of trying to understand his experience. Is he in love with life itself, Nathalie wants to know, or the life he had when he was healthy? "If at least I'd learned something," Remy says, angry and bereft. "I'm as helpless as the day I was born."

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