By William Wolf

NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL 2003 (III)  Send This Review to a Friend

In addition to showing its selection of new movies, the New York Film Festival always invites directors, screenwriters and stars to give press conferences whenever possible, and this affords those covering the annual event an opportunity to ask questions, some of which are intelligent, and some of which are insipid. Generally the guests handle both kinds in stride.

Of those who turned up at the most recent festival, one who especially interested me was Denys Arcand, the director of the superb Candian import, "The Barbarian Invasions." Arcand, who has assembled some of the same actors playing the same characters as they did in "The Decline of the American Empire," noted, "As you get older death and illness are things you become more familiar with." He said that since the previous film he lost both his parents and many friends. The subject of euthanasia has become important to him, and he deals with it powerfully in his latest work.

Rémy Girard, who plays the dying protagonist named Rémy, also played him as a younger man in the earlier film. "For me it was a big challenge and a great gift to play a character I played 17 years ago," Girard said. "It was a surprise when I got the script."

In commenting on the leading character in the film, Denys noted that Rémy is a historian, and historians always want to think about the times in which they are living. He said that for him "The Barbarian Invasions" is a film about history. Pressed on the meaning of the title, Arcand said that it refers to such invasions that he described as the drugs coming in, the SARS virus, the Nile virus and the problems that occur with immigration of poorer people seeing opportunities in a richer country.

Mirmax, the film's distributor, subsequently made Arcand available to a small group of critics and journalists, and he elaborated on some of what he said at the formal press conference, mentioning that his parents, as well as his grandfather, had all died of cancer. "I spent long hours in hospital corridors." His portrayal of an overcrowded hospital is a strong point in his film.

"We're in a mess right now in Canada," he noted about the medical situation. "We'll probably get out of it, but nobody has a plan. It all comes from a very generous idea. Everybody has a card and you get taken care of free. Of course, with it there is bureaucracy."

Arcand said he tried for five years to write a script dealing with death, but ended up with one that was "dark and depressing and not anything I would want to see." Once he got the idea of returning to some of the characters from the earlier film, the script fell into place. But he bristled at any reference to the new film as a sequel.

It is surprising to realize that Stéphane Rousseau, who plays Rémy's estranged son and does a first-rate dramatic job, is a standup comic in Canada. "I was surprised to get the job," he said, "but I guess Denys likes standup comics." He said a friend recommended him to Arcand, and thinks the director agreed to meet him just to please her. "I really wanted the part. My mom and dad died of cancer and my sister has it too. The story is so close to me."

He was also referring to issues he had with his father. "I ran away from home, but you can't escape because the blood is in your veins. It's all a matter of family." He said that he and his dad had an argument that lasted too long. "I was very happy that we reconciled a few months before he died. I think that we as children have to take the first step sometime."

Rousseau said he's all for allowing people to arrange to die. "My mom suffered so much. But it is hard to decide for someone. It's like playing God." He spoke in such a low key manner that it was difficult to imagine him doing standup, except when he made an odd wisecrack. As for getting this new opportunity, Rousseau said, "It's going to change my way of working. I used to just want to make people laugh."


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