- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2004

Writer-director Denys Arcand’s “The Barbarian Invasions,” which on Tuesday received two Academy Award nominations — for best foreign film and best original screenplay — recently concluded first-run bookings at the Cineplex Odeon Outer Circle and Landmark Bethesda Row. Latecomers intrigued by the French-Canadian film might want to inquire about copies of its auspicious predecessor, “The Decline of the American Empire,” Mr. Arcand’s 1986 social comedy about a set of complacent Montreal faculty members gathered for an autumnal day of gossip and dining.

The movie had been unavailable in a DVD edition in the United States. The Landmark management cleverly arranged with the Canadian distributor, Seville Pictures, to sell the elusive item to interested patrons during the recent engagement of “Barbarian Invasions.” The entire, limited, stock sold out, and the successful experiment may be repeated soon with other titles.

“American Empire” was a sophisticated revelation when new and holds up sturdily in retrospect. Mr. Arcand contrived to update the knowing tone and romantic skepticism of the best Ingmar Bergman and Eric Rohmer comedies.

Mr. Bergman’s elegant and astringent “Smiles of a Summer Night” seemed the closest vintage inspiration. The structure is similar, and Mr. Arcand invents contemporary equivalents of the costume snobs compromised by vanity, naivete, longing and deceit. He also earned the distinction of being an obvious man of the political left who didn’t mind ridiculing pretensions and platitudes that had become second nature on the left.

There were eight principal characters in “American Empire,” plus an outsider who provided surly perspective by observing the insiders with unconcealed contempt when he turns up as an uninvited dinner guest. Six of the cast members reprised their roles in “Barbarian Invasions,” playing older but not necessarily wiser versions of their original roles.

This returning sextet consists of masculine and feminine trios: Remy Girard as a history professor called Remy; Pierre Curzi as a colleague named Pierre; Yves Jacques as a homosexual colleague named Claude, whose specialty is art history; Dominique Michel as their department chair, Dominique; Dorothee Berryman as Remy’s wife, Louise, not a professional academic; and Louise Portal as Diane, who summarizes her dissatisfaction with lack of tenure at one point by complaining, “I have to do radio interviews to send my kids to private school.” That’s about as severe as deprivation gets in this circle.

Diane and Dominique are introduced as the former plays publicist for the latter, the author of a new tome, “Changing Concepts of Happiness.” Diane conducts a strolling interview with her friend and supervisor on the University of Montreal campus. The thesis of Dominique’s book: As civilizations decline, personal happiness becomes more important than taking long views and planning for the future. The group huddled in “American Empire” seems to have been hastening this tendency along with hedonistic pastimes, lechery most systematically.

Mr. Arcand likes to congregate the women on athletic fields and inside gyms. They gossip as they work out. The men are introduced in the kitchen of a lakeside cottage owned by Remy and Louise; they gossip while helping Claude prepare the entree, coulibiac, a large pastry shell filled with trout.

The most strenuous chore performed by Remy is flipping the switch of a Cuisinart, but he revels in anecdotes of a strenuous, ongoing amorous life as an adulterous gourmand. He insists that these escapades have been discreetly conducted behind the back of Louise, who has no inkling of the magnitude of his philandering. The couple has two children, unseen in the first movie. The grown offspring emerge as characters in “Barbarian Invasions,” which takes place toward the end of 2001, a decade or more after the divorce anticipated by last-act indiscretions in “American Empire.”

Remy’s fond tales of promiscuity are echoed by Pierre and Claude at the cottage and by Dominique, Diane and even Louise at the gym. The most vulnerable single figure in the original film, despite the fact that Claude is revealed to be suffering from an HIV infection, Louise confesses to attending one disillusioning orgy in her husband’s company. It’s interesting that Remy declines to share this particular confession with the guys. His hypocrisies are humorously punished in flashbacks ascribed to Dominique and Diane, who recall him scrambling out of their beds in similar moods of haste and chagrin.

The film’s Canadian perspective provided Mr. Arcand’s social satire with a distinctive booby trap for like-minded “progressives.” Anti-American prejudice abounds among American radicals, but it seems rather funnier when identified as a Canadian curse. One of the hypocrisies dear to this intellectual set is that they can mock or underrate American power and influence securely, from a comfortable position on the outskirts of geopolitical conflict.

For example, Dominique takes it for granted that American power is “inevitably” on the wane, circa 1985-86. Her book is no doubt overdue for revision. The hedonism and prosperity that she and her colleagues have grown accustomed to is protected from anything of a genuinely threatening cultural or political nature by the permissive reach of American power — or “empire,” to use a term that may actually seem more relevant, not to mention more essential and defensible, in the wake of September 11.

Although fond of his characters and indulgent of their follies and betrayals, Mr. Arcand recognizes the Canadian kibitzers, tattlers and bed-hoppers of “American Empire” as spoiled pets inclined to will themselves into futility.

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