Originally created 11/24/03

Q&A with Denys Arcand



LOS ANGELES -- The Sept. 11 attacks gave filmmaker Denys Arcand the last piece in a puzzle he had struggled to assemble for 20 years.

Arcand was home in Montreal that day, working on a screenplay that resurrected characters from his 1986 movie "The Decline of the American Empire" and his 1989 tale "Jesus of Montreal," both Academy Awards nominees for foreign-language film.

His wife called and told him something terrible was happening in New York. Arcand turned on the television in time to see the second plane crash into the World Trade Center.

The attack gave Arcand his title, "The Barbarian Invasions," and images of the second plane crashing wound up in the film as preface for a historian's prediction that Sept. 11 might one day be compared to incursions that contributed to the fall of Rome.

"I was already looking for a title like that," Arcand, 62, said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I was thinking, after the decline of the Roman Empire, what happened? What was the corollary? Then came Sept. 11, and I went, ah, barbarian invasions. Barbarians are at the gate. So that glued it together."

Like "The Decline of the American Empire," the film is not a dusty historical treatise but a bawdy blend of sentiment and cynicism as liberal intellectuals search for meaning and a grand good time.

"Barbarian Invasions" reunites the scholars of that earlier film for a fond farewell to one of their number (Remy Girard), who is dying of cancer and finds unexpected emotional connections with his estranged son (Stephane Rousseau). A few characters from "Jesus of Montreal" also appear.

At last spring's Cannes Film Festival, the film won prizes for Arcand's screenplay and for best actress (Marie-Josee Croze, who plays a junkie enlisted to score heroin to ease the dying man's pain). Canada chose "The Barbarian Invasions" as its foreign-language entry for the upcoming Oscars.

AP: "Decline of the American Empire" and "Barbarian Invasions" take place among Canadians. Why do the titles refer to the United States?

Arcand: We have this total familiarity (with the United States), yet at the same time, we're not Americans. We're not No. 1. We're just these people with a peculiar view because we're very close. ... So you feel you are this privileged observer. You're sitting on your balcony, the real action is in the street. It's there, it's in the U.S. You're sitting there at a ringside seat in a country where nothing ever happens. Canada is this absolutely boring country where nothing ever happens.

AP: Why did you include the Sept. 11 images?

Arcand: It's history. It's there, and I'm dealing with historians. They were activists in the '60s and '70s. They were Marxists, the women were feminists. They were against the Vietnam War, they were for this, for that, against this, against that. And they're trying to understand these times we've been living in. It's something the main character, he's trying to understand this as he's going to die, because you want to know, when in the course of history did you live? So it had to be there, it had to be part of all this. I have this feeling we're going to be invaded, the 21st century is going to be a time of invasions, all sorts of invasions. Like the drug scenes in the movie, drugs coming into Montreal from every corner of the earth. All of these are part of the mosaic I was trying to present.

AP: How did the story originate?

Arcand: Ever since I turned 40, I became obsessed with this idea of death. I wanted to make a film about either a man facing his own death or about suicide. I've been very touched by suicide, because seven of my friends killed themselves, which is a lot. It's more than your average person. So I tried over the years writing this script but could never come up with anything I really liked. I ended up with these bleak, desperate scripts, stuff that I wouldn't want to see as a filmgoer. So I just left them on the shelf.

AP: How did you get unstuck?

Arcand: About two years ago, I thought, what if I went back to these characters from "Decline of the American Empire"? Maybe I could pull it off. Then the script was very easy to write, because these characters are fairly cynical and they're very bright. So these characters would want to flaunt death. "I'm going tomorrow, so I'm going to smoke this perfect joint before going." And they would want to reminisce about the wonderful days when they all slept together in the '60s and '70s, and have a perfect meal and laugh together. It allowed me to make the script something with levity, a certain grace, a certain smile all through it, which I was looking for and I couldn't find.

AP: Did you draw on personal experience in the father-son estrangement?

Arcand: My father died in 1987. He despised filmmaking and movies. To him, movies were cheap entertainment for the masses. To him, art was opera. So it's very peculiar being a filmmaker if your father despises movies. Our relationship was cordial, yet at the same time, you have this feeling you would never be able to gain the respect or admiration or encouragement you would want from your own father. I could have been Orson Welles and Eisenstein together, and he still wouldn't have been impressed.

AP: Did the two of you reconcile before he died?

Arcand: At the very end, "Decline of the American Empire" won a prize at Cannes, and I was up for an Oscar. Then his friends, people he respected, said, "Your son is doing great. This is absolutely amazing what he's doing." Then I saw just before his death, like two interrogation marks in his eyes, saying, "God, have I been wrong all these years?" So at the last moment, there was this possibility. We never talked about it, and I never said to him that I loved him, which I should have. So I made this one for that. At the end, the son says "I love you" to his father, because I was never able to do that in real life.