The Barbarian Invasions
Les Invasions Barbares
review by Carrie Gorringe, 19 September 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2003

Personal Tragedy

It has been sixteen years since we last encountered Denys Arcand’s merry band of fin-de-siècle boomer sybarites in Decline of the American Empire. As that film ended, history professor Rémy (Remy Girard) was, thanks to his tireless indulgence in serial adultery, in the process of ruining his marriage to the sweet but naïve Louise (Dorothée Berryman). In the sequel, The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions Barbares), time is running out for both Rémy and the sense of invincibility that North Americans had enjoyed for over fifty years. In Rémy’s case, the agony of a terminal illness is compounded by the decrepit excuse for a health-care system that exists in Quebec. Distressed over his degraded condition, Rémy’s always solicitous ex-wife calls their son, Sébastien (Stephane Rousseau), and begs him to return from his privileged life in France and use some of his trading skills to help his father. Once home, Sébastien, appalled by the situation, proceeds to prove that lots of money, spread liberally among the right administrators and union members, cuts through even the most recalcitrant of red tape. After being appraised of the hopelessness of his father’s condition, Sébastien inquires about the effectiveness of pain killers. The best solution, according to a doctor, is heroin. After some searching, he enlists a daughter of one of his father’s old "friends", Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze) to procure a little extra from her supplier on a regular basis. Soon, Rémy’s situation improves to the point where Sebastien decides that a final meeting of the old gang, including Pierre (Pierre Curzi), Claude (Yves Jacques) and Dominique (Dominique Michel) is in order, so that they can see Rémy through to the end.

While Rémy is enacting his own personal tragedy, the events of September 11, 2001 unfold, destroying forever Americans’ belief in their personal safety. Like Ancient Rome before it, America suffers the brutal consequences of having the barbarians breach their gates. Unlike in Ancient Rome, the question left unanswered, is whether or not the initial breach will turn into a full-fledged rout of Western Civilization.

As usual, the satirist Arcand has his pick of targets which he savages with aplomb. The constant, agonizingly long tracking shots of hospital hallways crammed with sick people signifies the severe crisis in Quebec health care (and the images look chillingly similar to photographs published a few years ago in McLean’s magazine). Left-leaning historians are also ripe for the puncturing; in a flashback, Rémy is seen extolling the virtues of the Chinese Cultural Revolution to a colleague who suffered under its excesses. But while corrupt bureaucrats and ideologically-blinkered intellectuals are always relevant and easy targets, Arcand spares no one in pursuing his real intent: the exploration of the end of life itself. Even Rémy, who all of his life pursued hedonism with an almost sociopathic obsession, must confront not only the inevitable failure of the body that became the center of his real "work" -- the pursuit of pleasure -- but he must also confront the damage, in both his professional and personal lives, from having chosen to live that way. It is the ultimate in cruel ironies that Rémy -- who fancied himself a man of the mind -- is now forced to rely solely upon his mind to relive his past as his body deteriorates. It begs the question of whether or not Rémy could ever have been a real intellectual, or someone who simply used his intellect just enough to collect the aphorisms that justified his behavior. It is the question that Rémy is forced to confront when things come to a head at Pierre’s lakeside cottage, the place where it all began. As the friends gather to help Rémy through his final days, Arcand makes you aware that they, too, have been forced to confront their own lack of immortality and that, like Rémy, they have been playing at real life. When the friends part this time, they will be one fewer, but will they be wiser for the experience? They all seem more inert than enlightened. Only Louise appears best able to cope with what’s coming, but even she is incapable of action.

It is the young people, Sébastien and Nathalie, who, in the face of what paralyzes their elders, act without hesitation to manage the impending situation in the most dignified manner possible, and they are the ones best able to confront the aftermath. Sébastien is able to forgive his father, and accept him for what he was. Nathalie, newly reunited with her mother, makes another attempt to improve her life. They, of course, have the advantage of time on their side, which makes the ability to change seem more possible, and what came before to seem like less of a waste. When the trappings of life fall away, as they do under the force of impending death, Arcand suggests that only friendships remain. Those, and a really good supplemental health-insurance plan, might be enough to make the end more palatable.

The performances in Invasion of the Barbarians are first-rate. We know the actors and their characters well-enough to love these old reprobates like a pair of well-worn slippers. But it is Croze who steals much of the attention. Her interpretation of Nathalie as a woman on the edge who is still nursing the hurt child inside, but who can still pull everything together when it is necessary is as much a part of the emotional center of the film as Remy himself. Nathalie becomes his nurse, and, at one point, his betrayer, but, inevitably, in coming to know and love Rémy, she sees the need to change her life. His death gives her -- and Sébastien -- strength. The second generation is in good hands.



Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:


Written and
Directed by:

Denys Arcand

Remy Girard
Stephane Rousseau
Dorothee Berryman
Marie-Josee Croze

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






  Copyright © 1996-2005 by Nitrate Productions, Inc. All Rights Reserved.