Films about death and dying can be hard to watch. They can be even harder to make or, rather, to make well. Overly sentimental or melodramatic, many feel like contrived tear-jerkers, manipulatively written for no other reason than to make audiences weep.
It's the rare film that can address this difficult subject with honesty and humor, acknowledging the importance of family and friends with a story that is both captivating and unpredictable. With "The Barbarian Invasions," French Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand has succeeded where others have failed. Wowing audiences at this year's Cannes Film Festival, his poignant drama won best screenplay and best actress awards.
"The Barbarian Invasions" is a sequel of sorts to Arcand's 1986 award winner, "The Decline of the American Empire." Set in Montreal and filmed in French, "Empire" is the talky tale of a group of baby-boomer friends, most notably a philandering history professor with an epicurean appreciation for women, wine, food and conversation.
Progressing the characters forward 17 years, "The Barbarian Invasions" again centers on the professor, now hospitalized and near death. Joined by his friends, former mistresses, ex-wife and estranged son, he is forced to reconcile the results of his past behavior while negotiating his pain -- which he does with the help of a heroin addict.
Arcand's latest film is his fourth attempt at making a film that addresses the issue of death. "As soon as I turned 40, I started being obsessed with dying," said the 62-year-old director, whose first try at such a movie was in the late '70s.
"When you grow old, you lose your father, you lose your mother," he said. "You start losing people around you. It's a reality. It's part of you. If you're a filmmaker, you make films about everything that fascinates you or haunts you or that you're afraid of or that you love."
For Arcand, who lost both his parents to prolonged bouts with cancer several years ago, it wasn't just death but heroin that fascinated him. Inspired by a close friend whose daughter was an addict, he began investigating. After meeting with the woman, he invited her onto the set to consult with actress Marie-Josee Croze, who was honored at Cannes for her portrayal of a young nihilist hopelessly addicted to "chasing the dragon." Arcand even met with the Montreal police to find out where he could buy heroin, a scene that is mimicked in the film when the dying man's son consults with a local drug investigator.
"I wish I'd had the guts to go and buy heroin for my parents," said Arcand, a supporter of Canada's medicinal heroin movement. "It's just not something in real life I'm able to do."
Arcand's selection of such a hedonistic drug is in keeping with his lead character's lust for life, a sensibility that was essential in creating the right mood. "The Barbarian Invasions" was such "a long time in coming," he said, because he couldn't find the right tone.
"It can become very easily dreary and depressing, and you don't go to a movie to be depressed. You want to come out with something else," Arcand said. "I don't make three-hanky films."
He decided to revisit the "Decline of the American Empire" characters because "these people would flaunt their mortality," he said. "They would want to have this meal with the perfect wine, and talk about the good old days when they all slept together. It allowed me a certain kind of levity, warmth and faith in life while we talk about this dark subject."
Before sitting down to write what would eventually become "The Barbarian Invasions," he phoned all the actors to see if they were interested in making such a film. Across the board, the answer was a resounding yes. In a case of life imitating art, the making of the film was as much a reunion for the actors as it was for the characters they were playing -- an experience that made for emotional moments while filming.
Even Arcand found himself crying at times, most notably at a scene in which the dying man's daughter, who had chosen to stay away at sea during her father's illness, tells him goodbye in a self-made video she sends over a satellite phone line.
"When she said, 'The first man in every girl's life is her father,' I was crying, the actress was crying. It was totally ridiculous. I knew what she was going to say. I'd written it myself, so why was I crying?" asked Arcand, who dedicated the film to his 7-year-old daughter, whom he adopted from China when he was 55.
"I have this obsession that I'm not going to live very long, so maybe later on, when she's 25 and I'm not there anymore, she would want to know who was that guy who got me from China and brought me to Canada. I felt this film was a fairly accurate portrait of who I was, what I thought, what were my concerns," he said.
"In the end, when you're on your deathbed, the only thing that counts is the people around you. It's not the theories you had or the bright ideas. It's just people -- family and extended family, family and friends."
Susan Carpenter can be contacted at susan.carpenter @latimes.com.