Published Jan 01, 2006Canada’s greatest living filmmaker returns to form with The Barbarian Invasions. Denys Arcand reunites the cast of The Decline of the American Empire, his 1987 hit that put Quebec on the international film map, and revives Empire’s style of intellectual banter laced with sharp wit. This time, however, writer and director Arcand shifts his focus from sex to death.
Rémy (Rémy Girard) is a divorced 50-something professor and playboy who lies dying in a Montreal hospital. His ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman) convinces their rich yuppie son Sébastian to return from Europe. Sébastian and Rémy argue. Though Rémy wasn’t much of a father, Sébastian bends over backwards to reduce his father’s suffering, including bribing the hospital union to move Rémy to an unused floor and hiring Nathalie, a junkie played by an assured Marie-Josée Croze, to score heroin and dull Rémy’s pain. Meanwhile, Rémy’s relatives, friends and lovers flock to the dying man’s bedside and irreverently reflect on their lives.
Though a strong film, the theme of a foreign invasion is sketchy at best, and the reconciliation between father and son feels unconvincing. What explains Sébastian’s reversal of heart towards Rémy, who preferred chasing skirts to changing diapers? Really, The Barbarian Invasions is about death and aging. The cast is 16 years older than the happier days of Empire, and despite Rémy’s constant flirtations, his terminal condition casts a pall over the film.
Undoubtedly, the film’s best moments belong to Arcand’s talented ensemble, though Rémy and Nathalie’s relationship is intriguing — the young Nathalie has her life ahead of her but insists on taking heroin to slowly kill herself, while the terminal Rémy asks her why? As in Empire, friendships lay at the heart of Barbarians. Both films are memorable because they show us that friends, more so than family, offer us the greatest comfort throughout life’s troubles and during death. (Alliance Atlantis)