Robert Horton is a Scarecrow board member and a longtime film critic. He will be contributing a series of “critic’s notes” to the Scarecrow blog—a chance to highlight worthy films playing locally and connecting them to the riches of Scarecrow’s collection.
Denys Arcand’s most recent film, The Fall of the American Empire, plays this week at the Grand Illusion theater; it returns the veteran French-Canadian filmmaker to familiar territory (or at least it alludes to his classic—and Oscar-nominated—1986 film The Decline of the American Empire). Arcand swings big, and this means his films occasionally whiff. But at this point, his ambitions are refreshing, and welcome.
Fall is no exception; this politically-charged heist picture (yes, apparently there is such a thing) sometimes seems at odds with itself. Yet it’s a witty and grown-up experience to sit through. In that spirit, I’ve gotten out two reviews of past Arcand films, Stardom (2000), with a central role for future Mad Men star Jessica Pare, and The Barbarian Invasions (2003), which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.
Stardom (originally published in Film.com)
For his chronicle of a supermodel’s comet-like rise, director Denys Arcand has chosen a defining approach. Except for brief bookends at beginning and end, the entirety of Stardom will be media footage: news reports, TV interviews, documentary scenes of the heroine’s life. The idea being that the story of small-town girl Tina Menzhal (Jessica Paré) could not exist outside the peering eye of the camera; indeed, that Tina herself might not exist without being looked at. Sort of like the newsreel at the beginning of Citizen Kane lasting for the entire film.
It must have sounded good on paper. And some viewers may find Arcand’s approach a penetrating comment on the culture today, just as some people found his film Jesus of Montreal profound. After about fifteen minutes or so, however, the gimmick begins to wear out. And the choice of a supermodel for the central figure is too cozy. Yes, a model is entirely a construct of the media, a vessel for other people’s ideas; but might the idea have gone into more provocative territory with a politician or a newspaper editor as the subject?
What keeps Stardom watchable is Arcand’s droll humor. And his barbs at the fashion industry are more fun than Altman’s in Ready to Wear. The odyssey of poor Tina begins when she is photographed playing hockey in her home town in Ontario, after which she hits the fast track in New York and Paris. A fashion photographer (Charles Berling) takes her into his bed for a while, and then a trendy restaurateur (Dan Aykroyd, of all people) installs her as his mistress. Tina has a habit of bringing powerful men crashing down around her, which culminates most amusingly in her marriage to a UN ambassador (Frank Langella). Langella’s furious crack-up is quite funny, as he loses it one day on the floor of the United Nations thanks to his inability to control his bodacious wife.
There’s also a fashion photographer (Robert Lepage), presumably based on Bruce Weber, shooting a black-and-white documentary about Tina. Most of the men in Tina’s life share one trait—they all keep interrupting her. Thus Tina herself remains a blank, a beautiful face and statuesque body on which to project…whatever. Eighteen-year-old Jessica Paré certainly embodies this perfectly, although I have no idea whether she can act.
Arcand gets his share of caustic observations in. One squirm-inducing scene has Tina surprised during a live talk show by the appearance of her father, who abandoned the family some years before. The obscene nature of that kind of media event is palpable. Those scenes stick, but I can’t quite shake the feeling the targets are entirely too easy here.
The Barbarian Invasions (originally published in the Everett Herald)
In 1986 the Canadian director Denys Arcand had a hit with The Decline of the American Empire, a lively comedy of manners about a group of smart friends in Quebec. Maybe too smart for their own good.
Now, Arcand has lassoed some of those characters back for an encore. This is The Barbarian Invasions, in which age has caught up with these restless intellectuals. (You do not need to have seen the previous film to enjoy this one.) At the center is Remy (Remy Girard), a history professor with a long history of mistresses, hedonism, and grand pronouncements. We learn right away that Remy is seriously ill, a plight that brings his old acquaintances back to gather ’round the bedside. It also brings his grown son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), a take-charge investment banker who lives in London. He’s controlled and organized where his dad is passionate and sloppy.
Quite a bit of the picture is set in a hospital, where Sebastien pays off the staff to get his father a decent room. This movie has a decidedly jaundiced view of the Canadian health-care system, presenting a vision of jammed hospital hallways and thieving employees.
Through it all, Remy sits around with his friends, reminiscing and pontificating: “Intelligence has disappeared,” he declares. “It may take eons to come back.” Girard, a roundish presence—round glasses, round shaved head, round belly—tackles his lusty character with relish. These people are entertaining, but exasperating, too—Remy generally seems to have brought his problems on himself. Like Decline of the American Empire, there is something self-congratulatory about this exercise.
But Arcand works in lovely flourishes. When Remy muses on his past erotic fantasies, his simple pleasures ring true: a woman baring her legs in a movie he saw when he was an adolescent, or tennis star Chris Evert. I really liked Remy’s Catholic nurse (Johanne Marie Tremblay), who looks like a minor character at first but then develops into a source of challenge and mercy for the patient.
The actors returning from American Empire include Dorothee Berryman, as Remy’s ex-wife, and Pierre Curzi, as a now-settled former playboy. The standout among newcomers is the stunning Marie-Josee Croze, as the daughter of one of the group. She is a drug addict, but her new acquaintance with Remy and Sebastien begins to change her life. It reminds us that the film is largely about the significance and solace of friendships.
The title refers partly to the September 11 attacks, but also to a generalized degrading of society. Bright movies such as this will stave off the invasion, at least for a while.
Robert Horton, the longtime reviewer for the Daily Herald and Seattle Weekly, is a member of the National Society of Film Critics.