NEW YORK — The première of Denys Arcand's surprisingly upbeat new film, "Barbarian Invasions," at the Cannes Film Festival in France this year wrenched equal parts tears and laughter from its audience.
The film is about a reconciliation between a father and his son as the father is dying. It examines generational friction, euthanasia, the state of Canadian hospital care, the plight of religious artifacts, and the vagaries of the narcotics squad - all of which are deftly woven into the plot, forming little whirlpools of satire within the main story.
The film brings back most of the cast and characters from Arcand's 1986 film, "Decline of the American Empire," as well as adding two striking newcomers, Stephane Rousseau as the son and Marie-Jose Croze as a heroin addict. It won the Best Screenplay Award and Best Actress Award for Croze at Cannes. Before the screening, the French- Canadian director was unusually nervous. His previous film, "Stardom," reflecting his own take on celebrity, had bombed.
"Emotion's not my trademark," says Arcand. "My trademark is irony, blistering satire. When I had tears in my eyes while we were shooting, I said, 'If we miss on this, we're going to be savaged.' Because if you don't have perfect pitch on this subject ... you're a dead duck. 'I have a 12-gauge gun waiting for you. All right, Canada goose, fly in front of me and I'm going to shoot you down.' So the fact that we pulled it off has put me in a blissful state."
Pulling it off wasn't so easy. Ever since his grandfather, father, and mother died more than a decade ago, Arcand had wanted to make a film on the theme of loss. "I was mulling it over," he says. "But I couldn't come up with the right idea for a script for a long, long time. I wrote four or five drafts that I left on the shelf because they had a heaviness to them which I hated. My ultimate hero, or heroes, are people like [Anton] Chekhov or Luis Buñuel, who talk about something extraordinarily serious with a smile, with a sort of slight detachment.... Some person's going to die, but yes, we're all going to die."
Meanwhile, he and his producer and companion, Denise Robert, adopted a baby girl. He describes the experience as a series of Proustian epiphanies. "It wasn't until I was taking care of my daughter that I remembered things from my own childhood - my mother giving me a bath in a very cold bathroom with an electric heater. And I remembered how much my parents had loved me," says Arcand, who was raised in a small village in Quebec. "I was never able to give that love back, in [their] life. To tell them how much I loved them. So films are made also to repair the past. In this film, I could make the son say that he loved ... his father."
Another breakthrough in the writing process came when Arcand decided that one of the main characters in "Decline" - Rémy (Rémy Girard), a history professor - should be the father. "What's an old socialist's worst nightmare?" he asks. "To have a young, ambitious, puritanical, capitalist son."
In the film, Rémy's son Sebastien is an international financier working in London, and estranged from his father. He comes to Montreal at the request of his mother to orchestrate his father's last days. Thanks to Sebastien's deep pockets, he is able to minimize his father's discomfort by securing him a private room. The film becomes a celebration of life, friendship, and filial love.
Arcand, who received a degree in history from the University of Montreal, says he has many friends among academics. He numbers books, along with golf clubs and tennis rackets, as his favorite possessions. "I have a life outside filmmaking," he says. "There are long gaps between my films because I enjoy living."
After auditioning him twice, Arcand cast stand-up comedian Stéphane Rousseau as Sebastien. "He called me an hour after the audition," says Rousseau. "I never thought Denys would come and get me for one of his films. But I had a feeling that role was meant for me." His 20-year career as a comedian began at 13, after his mother died. "I made my mom laugh all the time, because she was very sick for the last five years of her life," he says. "So I was always getting into costumes. And my mom would tell me, 'You're going to be a stand-up.' So obviously, I couldn't be anything else."