THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS

  (Les Invasions Barbares)

Directed by Denys Arcand. Canada. 2003.


Talking Pictures alias talkingpix.co.uk
 
 


 
 

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"It's paradoxical but living grows on you"  - Professor Rémy


Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions is a touching film about family healing that won the award for Best Screenplay and Best Actress for Marie-Josée Croze at the last Cannes Film Festival and has been nominated for Best Foreign Film at the upcoming Golden Globe Awards. Set in a crowded hospital in Montreal and on Lake Memphremagog in Southern Quebec, a group of seven friends and lovers gather to say farewell to History professor and unabashed womanizer, Rémy (Rémy Girard) who is slowly dying of cancer. The film reprises the characters first introduced in Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire seventeen years ago and they come across as real people honestly searching for meaning and reconciliation. Though the film is about death and dying, it is filled with intelligence, humour, high energy, and commitment to life. 

The film centres on Rémy's estranged relationship with his son Sebastian (stand-up comic Stéphane Rousseau) a millionaire London businessman. When Sebastian comes to Montreal with his fiancée (Marina Hands), years of resentment against his father boil to the surface. Rémy apparently was not an exemplary father figure. He cheated on his wife, over indulged himself in hedonistic pleasures, and offered less than the support his children needed. Rémy, a socialist, considers his son a "puritanical capitalist" and one who portends the coming "barbarian" invasions. Sebastian resents Rémy for his womanizing and calls him "contentious". In spite of this resentment, however, he starts throwing money around to try and make his father's final days more comfortable, in a way subtly letting his father know that money can buy anything. 

Sebastian "persuades" hospital administrators to provide a private room for him on an unused floor and bribes union leaders to fix it up. He enlists Diane's daughter, Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), a tortured heroin addict into providing drugs to alleviate Rémy's pain. This allows Arcand to throw in some digs at the Canadian medical system and the puritanical drug laws in both Canada and the U.S. that deny adequate relief for a patient's pain. Sebastian contacts Remy's old friends from the university and brings them to the hospital. These include Remy's tolerant former wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), department head and ex-lover Dominique (Dominique Michel), and three fellow professors: Pierre (Pierre Curzi), Claude (Yves Jacques), and Diane (Louise Portal). During his hospital stay, Rémy is comforted by Sister Constance (Johanne Marie Tremblay) who puts up with his anti-Catholic remarks and tells him to "embrace the mystery". 

When Rémy is released, all meet at a cottage by a lake for a final group discussion that includes jokes about sex and past failures and discussions about 9/11, American cultural domination, and all the "isms" they once believed in. Though still full of spirit, Rémy admits that he feels as if his life never measured up to his dreams. The Barbarian Invasions is not a perfect film by any means but is one of the strongest Canadian films of recent years. Though some of the dialogue is strained, underneath there is a humanity that allows us to connect with our feelings about our own mortality and our relationships with those we care about. It is often hard to reconcile the robustly alive Rémy with our pictures of a man dying of cancer but Girard is powerfully effective in the role and I went from quiet distaste of his amorality to full acceptance of who he is by the end of the film. Though the conclusion is emotional, it is not trite or overly sentimental but allows us to access the deep place of silence within ourselves and embrace the mystery.

Howard Schumann
 
 
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