The Barbarian Invasions, Invasion of the Barbarians
A provocative new comedy about sex, friendship, and all other things that invade our lives.
Running Time: 99 minutes
US Certificate: R UK Certificate: 18
Country: Canada, France
In 1986, amidst the stultification of the Reagan era, French-Canadian Denys Arcand released 'The Decline of the American Empire', a deliciously tart film about a group of Quebecois academics in their thirties who gather together to discuss their sex lives – a sort of Canadian 'Sex and the City', only with much greater intellectual content. Since then, Arcand has made the highly successful 'Jesus of Montreal', and the less successful 'Love and Human Remains', 'Joyeux Calvaire' and 'Stardom', but now he returns both to old material and old form in 'The Barabarian Invasions', reuniting the original cast of 'Decline…' to see what has become of their characters, and of the world of vanishing ideals and sexual hedonism that they inhabited, seventeen years on.
With history lecturer and serial philanderer Rémy (Rémy Girard) dying of cancer in a hellish Montreal hospital, his estranged wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman) summons his even more estranged son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) to fly in from London. Despite Rémy's initial suspicions and disapproval, Sébastien rapidly improves the situation, taking his father to see specialists in the US, moving him into a private room, setting up video messages via e-mail from Rémy's yachting daughter, gathering Rémy's old friends and lovers around him, and even arranging for junkie Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze) to procure and administer heroin for Rémy's pain.
Rémy is a loveable rogue, but his days are numbered, not just because of his illness but also because of his outdated values and ideologies, and it is hardly a coincidence that he is a historian, forever looking to the past, whereas his son, with his capitalist ambitions, internationalist outlook and ubiquitous electronic gadgets, is by profession a trader in futures. At the core of the film is the relationship and gradual reconciliation between these two men, offering Arcand an effective dramatic frame through which he can explore profound shifts in politics, religion and (of course) sexual mores over the last few decades. At first Rémy regards Sébastien as just another barbarian threat, like the 'crazed Mohammedans' who attacked New York's Twin Towers, but he comes to accept that his son's new outlook on life brings certain undeniable benefits, while some of his own cherished ideals (like his commitment to socialised medicine in Canada, or his previous championing of the Chinese Cultural Revolution) have produced barbarities of their own.
By the film's conclusion, friction and difference give way to rapprochement and continuity, as Rémy's love of life, strong character, library of knowledge and even, perhaps, his adulterous proclivities are handed down to representatives of the next generation. Some may find this message of optimistic humanism, where all the horrors of history are compensated by love and friendship, a little mawkish, but along the way there is enough barbed satire, puncturing Canada's Kafka-esque public health system, corrupt unions, desperate Catholic church and racist constabulary, to satisfy the most cynical of viewers. The dialogue is fast and witty, and the performances are spot-on – including Croze's intense turn as Nathalie, for which she won the Best Actress award at Cannes.
It's Got: Mordant satire, witty dialogue, a bittersweet balancing of pessimism and optimism, and a hilarious discussion of blowjobs.
It Needs: To be a little less sentimental, perhaps (although the ambivalence of the very final scenes compensates somewhat)
DVD Extras Scene selection; choice of 2.0 stereo/5.1 Dolby Digital surround; optional English subtitles; trailers (subtitled) for both The Barbarian Invasions and The Decline of the American Empire; two deleted scenes - in the first, one of Rémys former lovers takes him to task for leaving her waiting, cheating on her, and being lousy in bed - in the second, another former lover weeps, climbs into Rémys bed, and tells him not to run away, apparently oblivious to the fact that Rémy is in a public ward of a hospital; two audio interviews with Denys Arcand - in the first, for BBC Radio 4s Front Row (6min), Arcand discusses being reduced to tears (along with his crew) by some of the scenes, the discomfort of death in a society that no longer believes in anything, and the relativity of the term barbarian - in the second, recorded at the London Film Festival (15min), Arcand comments on the evolution of the script, his beliefs on euthanasia, the effect of 9/11 (which hap pened in the middle of writing), the history of the twentieth century, the end of ideology, his conflicted feelings about the Catholic church, and his belief that the people of Quebec are basically Norman peasants; filmographies of Arcand, Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Marie-Josée Croze and Dorothée Berryman. DVD Extras Rating: 6/10
Alternatives:The Big Chill, The Decline of the American Empire
An intelligent film of careful balances, where the past is weighed against the future, horror against hope, capitalism against socialism, faith against secularism, death against life. The viciousness of its satire, and the ambivalence of its final images, leave a bitter aftertaste which ensures that its message of cautious optimism, though sweet, never becomes too cloying.