Barbarian Invasion, The
November 22nd, 2003
1986 saw the release of French Canadian filmmaker Denys Arcand’s breakthrough film, “The Decline of the American Empire,” the story of four teachers from the history department of a Canadian university and four of their friends who, over the course of one dinner, discuss the politics of sexual behavior. The film was a surprise hit at the Cannes Film Festival and became an art-house hit in America.
Seventeen years later, Arcand has returned to these characters with “The Barbarian Invasions,” crafting an intense and provocative new work that complements “Decline” while remaining an enjoyable and worthwhile film to those who have not seen the first film, or are aware the two films are connected.
In the days after the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, Quebec history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) still has the same lust for life in his fifties as he had in his thirties. But when he is diagnosed with inoperable cancer, Rémy discovers he had much to reconcile in his remaining days, with his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), his Socialist friends and, most of all, his son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), now a wealthy investments banker living in London. To the son, father has always been a cold and distant man solely concerned with feeding his own desires. To the father, son is a decadent symbol of all that is wrong in the world in the pursuit of money. At the urging of his mother, Sébastien returns to Quebec for the first time in many years, to reconcile with the man he disdains. Yet, despite all the wounds of the past and the continued stubbornness of the dying man, Sébastien is compelled to help his father not only find peace from his physical pain but to reunite Rémy with his old friends from the past for one final get-together.
As Sébastien works his way through the Kafkaesque nightmare that can be the Canadian Socialist Healthcare system in order to secure his father a private room, the friends, former colleagues and mistresses of Rémy come together, the ties of camaraderie remaining strong enough after all those years for each to drop whatever they are doing today to spend time with their soon-to-be fallen comrade. As Rémy falls sicker, his friends and family decide to throw him one final dinner to celebrate his life.
What makes “The Barbarian Invasions” work so well is that it takes a much different path that a similar American film would take. Rarely, if ever, would an American film have a conservatively minded main protagonist regularly score heroin for his father as a way to dull the increasing pain as cancer ravages onward. Yet this is just one of the lengths Sébastien is willing to go to for his dad, and helps set the film up with one of its best characters, Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), the junkie daughter of one of Remy’s past mistresses, who not only helps teaches the older man how to smoke heroin but teach Sébastien a couple of important life lessons about tolerance and understanding.
Girard, Rousseau and Croze (who won an award in Cannes for her role) all turn in staggering, yet understated and very real, performances, permeating the characters with real emotions and reactions. And while the film is about the final days of one man, it is rarely a bleak or depressing experience. Writer/director Arcand (whose screenplay also was feted by the Cannes jury) is more concerned about what is so great about life, creating a film with a sense of joy and wonder as it celebrates our existence, while reminding us of some of the human traits, like stubbornness and vanity, which keep us from enjoying life as much as we should. How novel to have a film about death be so positive about life.
“The Barbarian Invasions” is one of the best films of the year.
My rating: A
This film was reviewed as part of the 2003 New York Film Festival.