The Barbarian Invasions,
99 mins, rated MA, opening in cinemas nationwide on 8 April 2004.
In French and English with English sub-titles.
The Barbarian Invasions, a French Canadian film that recently won the
Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2003, reminded me a lot of Mike
Leigh’s Naked (1993). It is not as tough a film as Naked, but
like Naked it fairly crackles with witticism and political comment.
Director Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montréal, 1989) has re-assembled
many of the cast that appeared in his1986 film The Decline of the
American Empire. But about 20 years have passed and the bright,
witty and sexually promiscuous thirty-something university friends in
the earlier film are now fifty-something. And one of them,
retired history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard), is dying of
As the film begins, Rémy’s ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée
Berryman), is unable to cope. Rémy is languishing in
Canada’s Medicare system. The hospital is overcrowded and
under-funded, the equipment is outmoded, and the medical staff are
harried and confused. These early scenes are among the most
powerful in the film. The camera takes us down crowded corridors
that look like something out of the 3rd world, but are in fact in
today’s Montréal. There’s some tough criticism of the
medical system, both visual and verbal.
Rémy’s estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane
Rousseau) is a rich financial marketeer living and working in
London. Louise convinces him to come back to Montréal to
be with his father. Reluctantly, Sébastien agrees, and
flies back with his girlfriend. Once there, he sees how dire the
situation is. Despite the fact that he is still fighting with his
father, Sébastien sets his father up in a beautiful private room
that he actually builds on a vacant hospital floor. Sebastian may
have earned Rémy’s contempt for his practically-focussed
education, and for never having read a book, but he certainly knows how
to get things done. He can make the hospital administration turn
a blind eye, he can square things with the union (more satire from
Director Arcand here), and he can even procure heroin for his father
when morphine is not strong enough.
Next, Sébastien gathers his father’s old friends together to
give him proper send-off. They gather in the hospital room,
and then later at a house by a lake, where much of the earlier film was
set. There’s lots of food, wine and talk about sex, but – these
being older friends now – there’s no actual sex.
All the elements are there for a maudlin ending, but Arcand is far too
smart for that. The presence of Nathalie, a heroin addict who
supplies and administers Rémy’s heroin, ensures the final scenes
have a tough edge. Marie-Josée Croze plays Nathalie.
She was named Best Actress at Cannes for her performance, but to me she
seems too luminously healthy-looking to be a junkie.
The title refers to several types of “barbarian invasion”. Arcand
uses (yet again) the image of the second plane ploughing into the World
Trade Centre to show one form of invasion (of the “American
Empire”). Rémy rails against all sorts of other forms of
“barbarism”, including his son’s and his students’ intellectual
barbarity. And of course the cancer has “invaded” his own body,
raising the question of the struggle to live versus the right to die.
But there’s the problem. The movie all but ignores the harrowing
process that is chemotherapy, and the heroin provides an excuse to have
Rémy looking hale and hearty, feisty and witty right to the
end. It also gives the film a drug-linked hipness in the form of
Nathalie, which seems dishonest. For all their cleverness and
loquaciousness, the characters don’t feel real. It is as if
Arcand is manipulating then to get across as many of his views about
modern society as he can. That’s where I see a similarity to Mike
Leigh’s Naked. That film’s central character, Johnny (David
Thewlis), was so astonishingly witty and cruel that eventually I
stopped believing in him.
The Barbarian Invasions is funny and witty and moving . It is an
intelligent film in its commentary on important political
religious and other social issues. It contains sharp satire and
incisive criticism. But I’m not sure that it has enough authentic
humanity to match its cleverness.