Living up to their caricature reputation as a self-indulgent, petulant and culture-monopolizing generation, the aging baby boomers in Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions" exist in a Möbius strip of fawning self-regard. Past political affiliations, sexual conquests and deep observations about, well, whatever, are recalled with cosmopolitan glee. In other words, Arcand's lefty windbags would fit in just fine in a film by French director Henry Jaglom Ð harsh words, indeed, but c'est la vie.
People often say that Americans cannot make an honest film about death, but whether or not French Canadians such as Arcand can do so still remains to be seen. Reviving the self-immersed characters that already wore out their welcome in Arcand's "The Decline of the American Empire" (1986), "Invasions" focuses on a slowly expiring Quebec academic named Remy (Rémy Girard). Bloated from a life of '60s-style excess and bald from chemo, Remy bitches about how humanity sucks, boasts about boffing undergrads, declares the undeniable sliminess of Albanians and gets nostalgic about Marx and so on. And on.
Unfettered narcissism pays off: Remy's financier son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) dutifully secures an entire floor of a hospital, as well as rounds up Remy's ex-wife (Dorothee Berryman) and assorted ex-lovers with whom to prattle away his final days. A gamine junkie Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze) is located to provide heroin to assist in Remy's mellow slide into the big sleep, students are paid off to tell Remy how swell he is, a hot Czech nurse appears for a last rubdown, etc.
The word "invasions" in the title comes courtesy of a rare, out-of-nowhere shot of one of the planes slamming into the World Trade Center (the sound enhanced, in case we missed the drama), leading to a talking head talking about Third World "barbarians" invading North America. And so Sept. 11 becomes Arcand's symbol for the bitch that change can bring. Some viewers might interpret this as a somewhat tasteless way to advance a ham-fisted metaphor.
Perhaps not unexpectedly, the film's nonboomers steal the show. Sébastien, because he actually does things (buying off anyone who won't help him, and, most amusingly, going to the cops to find out where to score heroin) and because his taciturn manner provides relief from the ceaseless chatter. Nathalie, meanwhile, struggles with her addiction and a grudging, growing attraction to Sébastien. Showing that Arcand is capable of sharply observed moments, we get other welcome digressions.
The usually confident Sébastien flounders in the dope underworld. He finds a cynical fellow traveler in a pragmatic narcotics detective, while his tense interactions with a creepy dealer impart Arcand's interclass issues better than any of Remy's jeremiads. Sébastien, Nathalie and the film's other secondary characters are neat, shaded creations ably played. But unfortunately, this isn't their movie.
(Opens Friday, April 9, at Enzian Theater)