Sunday, July 31, 2005

#8: On Women & Grief: THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS & MY LIFE WITHOUT ME 3/18/04 I have heard Canadians say that Americans even look loud, all the way across a room, without saying or doing anything. Mel Gibson’s film THE PASSION has been called “the most violent movie ever made.” In contrast, two recent Canadian films about grief & dying achieve small miracles of humanity with virtually no blood at all. Denys Arcand’s THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS (2003) is playing at the Westcott, having moved into town from Manlius Cinema to make room for Jim Carey’s new film. Set in Montreal, it takes its title from a TV interview playing in the hospital room of cancer-stricken Remy, a history professor whose lives & loves were chronicled with many of the same actors in Arcand’s 1986 film, THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE. (What seems to be the only print in town of DECLINE is available at Emerald City Video.) As Remy’s ex-wife, son & various friends & lovers reunite, the TV commentator replaying footage of the second airplane hitting the WTC says that 9/11 marked the first time “barbarians” got inside the city gates of the West. The story of the Remy’s last days, when he’s invaded by cancer, is thus hung on this larger cultural frame quite intentionally. It’s hugely fortunate for both films that Arcand reassembled most of the earlier film’s cast for this sequel. DECLINE cuts back & forth over a single day between four women, working out in a gym together & talking about sex, & four men, also discussing sex & fidelity, who prepare a feast at a lakeside house where the women later join them. Throughout this day & evening, we learn that Remy has slept with all the women & at least one of the men. His wife Louise finally learns the extent of his infidelity too – now no longer amusing. If Remy’s superior airs are undercut with some witty flashbacks that show him, pudgy & naked & scuttling for an exit like a cornered rat facing capture, Louise’s humiliation is sobering & moving. The children of these people appear briefly & almost as second thoughts in the earlier film - one character comments that the children of intellectuals are “always notorious disasters.” Fast forward to Remy’s last days, then. His son Sebastien flies in from London, where a successful financial career is wholly at odds with Remy’s idea of a useful or politically appropriate occupation. Urged by his mother, Sebastien dutifully sets out to provide the old man with a comfortable & fitting death, calling ex-lovers & old friends & even paying students to visit. Even if you haven’t seen DECLINE too, Louise’s generosity toward her ex-husband & her encompassing respect for his relationships lays near the heart of this film. But seeing DECLINE deepens one’s appreciation of this woman who, after all, was largely dismissed by as na├»ve – as unable to really “keep up” – by this circle of sophisticates in their younger days. Her son’s collaborator in orchestrating Remy’s final days is Nathalie, the daughter of one of Remy’s ex-mistresses. Sebastien remembers her vaguely from their childhood but doesn’t recognize her now due to her decline through heroin addiction. In a deal suggested by a nun in the Catholic hospital, Sebastien arranges to keep Nathalie in dope if she’ll shoot up his father, since the regular pain medication has become close to useless. Initially flat & close to frozen, Nathalie slowly thaws out & gets another chance at living through her proximity to these people doing their best to square accounts among each other. Marie-Jozee Croze won the Cannes 2003 best actress award for her portrayal of Nathalie, & she’s so indelible that you’ll recognize her instantly in a small walk-on part in Angelina Jolie’s new (& unexpectedly good) thriller, TAKING LIVES, also filmed in Montreal, which opens this week-end. MY LIFE WITHOUT ME (2002) didn’t play in Syracuse, but is now available for rental on DVD. Set in British Columbia on the opposite Canadian coast, from writer-director Isabel Caixet, it stars Sarah Polley as the mother of two young daughters & herself in her early 20’s, diagnosed with incurable, advanced cancer. Annie resolves at once to keep this from her husband Don & her mother (played by singer Deborah Harry) & engages her doctor in an increasing long-term commitment to help her carry out her plans. Having a coffee in a diner, she opens her spiral notebook & makes a list of “Things to do before I die”: Tell her daughters she loves them many times a day. Smoke & drink as much as she wants. Make birthday messages on tape for her kids. Say what she is thinking (she tries this one out & doesn’t have much success with it). Have sex with another man so she knows what it’s like. Make him fall in love with her. Visit her dad in prison. As she’s absorbed in this list, an American across the diner (Mark Ruffalo) watches her, later meets her in the laundromat, & they begin an affair. Yes, she really loves both men, & few films have made this situation so convincing. Completing her own affairs for Annie means orchestrating the lives of those she leaves behind, so that they are free to go on, especially the generations of women surrounding her: her kids, her mom, & a new Anne next door, a nurse whom she promotes replacing her with Don & loving her kids. Sarah Polley is another young Canadian actress who bears watching. And you can catch her as one of the leads in another new release that also seems to have been filmed near if not in Canada, the remake of DAWN OF THE DEAD. Her genuineness is one of the qualities that lifts this horror film above the ordinary, making it finally more provocative than one expects. Here, one of the most appealing things about Sarah Polley’s role as Annie is her own acting within acting. She roars like a lion with her two little girls, their on-going game of being scared by her & roaring back. She is teaching them how to pretend, how to entertain themselves, how to in fact invent themselves, a trait that the grown children in BARBARIAN INVASIONS share with her. Both films are really about the nature of choice in the face that most radically powerless situation: the facing of one’s own death. Together, these films prove it’s not whether the folks around you know you’re dying that makes the difference, but how present humans are willing to be with one another. (1089)