Film

BARBARIAN DIVERSIONS

Denys Arcand’s latest was a gem amid the dire fare at Cannes

Brian D. Johnson June 2 2003
Film

BARBARIAN DIVERSIONS

Denys Arcand’s latest was a gem amid the dire fare at Cannes

Brian D. Johnson June 2 2003

BARBARIAN DIVERSIONS

Film

Denys Arcand’s latest was a gem amid the dire fare at Cannes

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

SITTING IN a beach pavilion, against a sky-line of white yachts anchored off the Côte d’Azur, Denys Arcand remembers first trying to pitch The Barbarian Invasions. “It was a battle,” he says, recalling how government funding agencies responded to his script, which revolves around a case of terminal cancer. “They said that it was not emotional enough, that it was dry. They said, ‘This guy’s dying and people are making jokes.’ And I said, ‘No, no, I don’t see it as cynical at all.’ ” The 62-year-old director smiles, knowing he has been vindicated. The previous night, as The Barbarian Invasions premiered in competition at the Cannes Film Festival, the tears flowed, and so did the applause. At the closing credits, the black-

tie audience treated Arcand and his cast to an eight-minute standing ovation. “I always say, you make the film you can, not the film that you want,” muses Arcand. “There’s an element of magic. Sometimes it jells and you don’t know why.”

Seventeen years after igniting his career in Cannes with The Decline of the American Empire, Arcand is celebrating a triumphant return to form. Decline, his droll ensemble comedy about intellectuals discussing their sex lives, struck a chord with a generation that had hit the wall of the sexual revolution in the mid-1980s. With Invasions, the same

characters, and some fresh ones, converge around Rémy (Rémy Girard), a once-promiscuous history professor who’s divorced and dying. As Rémy’s ex-wife and mistresses converge at his bedside, his estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a wealthy oil trader, moves heaven and earth to rescue him from a hellish hospital ward, and even hires a junkie (Marie-Josée Croze) to administer heroin. Arcand, meanwhile, dispenses a dose of moral reckoning spiked with mordant satire—his targets include Canada’s health-care system, the “isms” of the sixties, and the death of literacy.

But his film also serves as a moving elegy to a generation that defined modern Quebec and has seen its passions rendered obsolete. After two frustrating detours into English-language cinema (Love and Human Remains and Stardom), Arcand, the sardonic dean of Quebec cinema, has gone back to his roots. In his home province, where Barbarian Invasions has grossed $2 million in just two weeks, he’s being hailed as a homecoming hero. And in Cannes last week, his movie emerged as one of the strongest hits among 20 features in the main competition. Variety called Invasions “fullbodied, funny and gloriously unpretentious.” Near the end of the festival, critic Roger Ebert said, “It might be the best movie I’ve seen in Cannes.” And it’s the best of Arcand’s career. Gliding from comedy to pathos, it’s a miracle of wit and compassion, a film that resonates sublimely with his Decline, with our decline—and with the dire mood of world cinema at the 56th Cannes Film Festival.

This year’s festival offered the first generation of films to clearly reflect the fallout from Sept. 11. The program was dominated by movies about massacre, suicide and social ruin. Movies about waiting for something dreadful to happen. Barbarian Invasions crystallized those themes, and turned out to be the one film that provided some solace. It didn’t just make us think; it made us laugh and cry. And in the aftermath of the Iraq war, it provided a sobering sense of perspective.

Cannes is the Olympics of world cinema—an axis of art lined up against the Hollywood superpower. And this year, the American presence seemed muted. But everywhere you looked, the American Empire was the elephant in the room. You saw it, most literally, in Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s eerily detached meditation on the Columbine massacre. You could see it in Dogville, Lars von Trier’s shattering fable of America as a pathologically intolerant small town that tortures Nicole Kidman’s mysterious fugitive. It lurked in the unpunished violence of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River. As you watched Osama and At Five in the Afternoon—two intensely moving dramas filmed with nonprofessionals in the ruins of Afghanistan— you couldn’t help but be reminded of America’s military adventures in the Middle East.

And you could feel history cast a chilling light on recent events in The Fog of War, Errol Morris’s exquisite documentary about former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara—an 87-year-old Horatio Alger

mulling over his role at the helm of the most lethal military machine in history. McNamara ponders firebombing 100,000 Tokyo civilians to death in a single night during the Second World War. He marvels at the sheer luck of averting nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and he takes us through the escalating folly of Vietnam. “He’s the last surviving member of Camelot,” says Morris, who says his movie is a tragedy that asks: “What if a good man, a decent man, blundered into something horrendous and was unable to stop it or himself.”

Meanwhile, on the Croisette, a mob of fans

watches Arnold Schwarzenegger strut across a Terminator 3 set in front of the Carlton Hotel. “I’m back!” Arnold proclaims as he shows off various gun-wielding robots from the Terminator franchise. “This is the capital of promotion of movies,” he boasts, perhaps to justify setting foot in peacenik France. Promising “visual effects and stunts that you’ve never seen before,” Arnold works the crowd like a Vegematic salesman.

In Cannes, however, Hollywood stars are a sideshow; the real carnival is onscreen. We don’t come here for the familiar and the famous, but for things we’ve never seen before. And there were plenty of those—the murderer with the pet jellyfish in Japan’s Bright Future, the man with a wart that grows to giant proportions in India’s Arimpara, and the close-up of a house fly crawling around Tilda Swinton’s nipple in Young Adam. Erotic novelty placed high on the Cannes menu, as usual. The noir intrigue of Young Adam, which is set on the barge canals of Scotland, features an abusive sex scene in which Ewan McGregor slathers Emily Mortimer with custard, ketchup and sugar. The baffling but beautiful Father and Son, by Russian director Alexander Sokurov, is about a parental relationship charged with homoerotic innuendo. And older women in the raw emerged as a notable trend. In Swimming Pool, 58-year-old Charlotte Ramplingplaying a mystery author who makes a nymphet her muse in a French country house—lies back and allows the camera to roam the length of her nude form. Another British thespian, 68-year-old Anne Reid, gets naked in The Mother, in which she plays a grandparent who has a torrid affair with her daughter’s boyfriend. “When I was 30 I would have been happy to take my clothes off,” she says. “But nobody asked me. Now I’m going to insist on it.”

Among the competition entries, the token scandale was The Brown Bunny, a stupefying feat of self-absorption written, directed, photographed and edited by Vincent Gallo (.Buffalo 66). The film ends with a scene of unsimulated, and unprotected, fellatio performed on Gallo by Chloë Sevigny, a dubious landmark in American cinema. But first you have to sit through an almost wordless hour and a half of Gallo driving across America, with long, uncut shots of the camera gazing through a bug-splattered windshield. For me, the most thrilling moment was not the fellatio at the end of the road, but the moment in the midwest when the windshield blurred with rain and Gordon Lightfoot’s Beautiful came on the soundtrack.

The Brown Bunny was the most indulgent example of a trend toward long, meditative takes. A critics’ favourite was the Turkish feature Distant, a meticulous portrait of male ennui in which virtually nothing happens. Van Sant, known for mainstream movies like To Die For and Good Will Hunting, used Elephant to widen the experimental window he recently opened with Gerry. Casting students with no acting experience, he staged long tracking shots of

them walking down high-school corridors through a series of random, overlapping encounters. Conjuring a sense ofyouth aimlessly adrift, Van Sant puts the viewer inside the school. He ends the film with a chilling Columbine-like massacre, making no attempt to explain the motivation behind it or insulate the horror with sentiment.

Several directors are using non-professional actors and documentary devices to create a savagely poetic cinema. One is Iran’s Samira Makhmalbaf, who shot At Five in the Afternoon in the rubble of Kabul. She recruited the cast from the streets. The

lead, 23-year-old Agheleh Rezaie, couldn’t come to Cannes because she had three children to care for back home, and their father had gone missing in the war. In making the lurid Carandiru, based on the true story of 1992’s Sâo Paulo prison massacre, Brazil’s Hector Babenco (Kiss of the Spider Woman) drew some of his cast from the slums.

Of all the films in competition, the most audacious was Dogville. Sitting through its three hours was an unusual ordeal. Although the film is set in a Rocky Mountain hamlet, von Trier shot it in Sweden on a stage with no sets, and virtually no props, just chalk-marked outlines of where doors, walls and streets would be. And with the plummy diction of a host from Masterpiece Theatre, John Hurt’s narration outweighs the dialogue. The movie unfolds like a mutant coupling of John Steinbeck and Thornton Wilder in a Brechtian chalk circle. It’s a gonzo-Catholic fable of the Fall set in a theatrical twilight zone.

With Dogville, the director behind the Dogme manifesto of doctrinaire realism has swung to the other end of the spectrum. And after surviving Stanley Kubrick, Kidman has fallen under the spell of another antiHollywood provocateur, who places his characters under a slow, scorching magnifying glass. Dogville is a shaggy dog story, and it can be profoundly irritating. But just as we’re wondering if von Trier is strutting about in the emperor’s new clothes, Dogville sinks its teeth. By the time David Bowie’s Young Americans kicks off the closing credits, over historic photos of faces from Dust Bowl refugees to the blacks who populate America’s prisons, you feel something unforgettable has been burned into your brain.

In a festival of exceptionally dark fare, it fell to Canada to lighten things up, and all the Canadian features hailed from Quebec. The Directors’ Fortnight closed with La Grande séduction, a charming comedy filmed on a remote island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Reminiscent of Wiking Ned Devine, it’s about

IN A FESTIVAL of exceptionally dark fare clearly reflecting the fallout from Sept. 11, it fell to Canada to offer solace and lighten things up

unemployed fishermen who conspire to hook a Montreal doctor into setting up practice in their village—a condition for building a factory. Incongruously, this Québécois doctor (David Boutin) is an ardent cricket fan, so the islanders pretend they adore the game, and build a wonky cricket pitch on the sloping rocks. A first feature from Montrealer Jean-François Pouliot, who

makes TV commercials, La Grande séduction offered a refreshing diversion from the austerity of auteur cinema.

And aside from Barbarian Invasions, one of the biggest crowd pleasers in the main selection was an animated feature, Belleville Rendez-vous. This Canada-France-Belgium co-production comes from French-born writer-director Sylvain Chomet, who has lived in Montreal since 1993. It’s the blackhumoured story of a grandmother who rides a paddleboat across the Atlantic to rescue her grandson, who’s been kidnapped by Mafiosi while cycling in the Tour de France. Disembarking in Belleville—a surreal amalgam of Manhattan, Montreal and Quebec City—she’s adopted by a sister act of vaudevillian triplets from the ’30s. With dazzling originality, and the delirious spirit of Django Reinhardt’s jazz, Belleville is a sophisticated cartoon that leaves Disney in the dust. The action climaxes on a facsimile of the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal. And, like Barbarian Invasions, this was a film that bridged the two solitudes of art and entertainment with finesse. 171