American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
Dying is not this cheerful, but we need to think it is. "The Barbarian Invasions" is a movie about a man who dies about as pleasantly as it's possible to imagine; the audience sheds happy tears. The man is a professor named Remy, who has devoted his life to wine, women and left-wing causes, and now faces death by cancer, certain and soon. His wife divorced him years ago because of his womanizing, his son is a millionaire who dislikes him and everything he stands for, many of his old friends are estranged, and the morphine is no longer controlling the pain. By the end of the story, miraculously, he will have gotten away with everything, and be forgiven and beloved.
The young embrace the fantasy that they will live forever. The old cling to the equally seductive fantasy that they will die a happy death. This is a fantasy for adults. It is also a movie with brains, indignation, irony and idealism -- a film about people who think seriously, and express themselves with passion. It comes from Denys Arcand of Quebec, whose "The Decline of the American Empire" (1986) involved many of the same characters during the fullness of their lives. At that time they either worked in the history department of a Montreal university or slept with somebody who did, and my review noted that "everybody talks about sex, but the real subject is wit ... their real passion comes in the area of verbal competition."
When people are building their careers, they need to prove they're better than their contemporaries. Those who win must then prove -- to themselves -- that they're as good as they used to be. Whether Remy was a good history professor is an interesting point (his son has to bribe three students to visit his bedside, but one of them later refuses to take the money). He certainly excelled in his lifestyle, as the lustiest and most Falstaffian of his circle, but every new conquest meant leaving someone behind -- and now, at the end, he seems to have left almost everyone behind.
We've all known someone like Remy. Frequently their children don't love them as much as their friends do. We have a stake in their passions; they live at full tilt so we don't have to, and sometimes even their castaways come to admire the life force that drives them on to new conquests, more wine, later nights. His former wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) calls their son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) in London, where he is a rich trader, to tell him his father is near death, and although he hasn't spoken to the old man in a long time, Sebastien flies home with his fiancee Gaelle (Marina Hands).