Les Invasions Barbares
review by KJ
Doughton, 26 December 2003
Invasions about a jolly, life-loving intellectual whose final
days are celebrated by a warm nest of loyal, admiring comrades? Or
does it concern a pompous, irresponsible bunghole whose few
remaining acquaintances grudgingly tend to him during a life-sapping
terminal illness? Denys Arcandís continuation of 1986ís Decline
of the American Empire revisits Frenchman Remy (Remy Girard), a
college history professor that viewers will either love or hate.
Heís an enthusiastic, carpe diem-practicing force of nature with
an eye for women and good books. But his somewhat impulsive id has
ruined his marriage and caused a rift between Remy and his son. Barbarian
Invasions examines how this free-spirited manís impending
death effects the motley crew of colleagues, mistresses, children,
ex-wives, and junkies gently guiding him into that good night.
filmís opening scene resembles a Game Boy screen during some
frantic, obstacle-jammed video race. A chaplain worker skitters down
the hallways of a Quebec hospital, dodging gurneys, IV tubes, and
nurses en route to Remyís room. The whole journey through this
medical minefield is filmed in one unbroken shot (think of the Goodfellas
Copacabana scene set in an ER, and you get the idea).
first impressions are deceiving, however. Barbarian
Invasions is a movie of words and ideas, not action set pieces
and fancy camera moves. When Arcandís lens finally rests on
Remyís bespectacled, pear-shaped face, the French subtitles run
fast and furious across the screen. His ex-wife (Dorothee Berryman)
expresses bitter resentment over the libidinous manís early days
spent "humping co-eds," even as she supports Remy through
the sobering news of his illness.
unfaithful skirt-chaser has cancer, and his one-time wife summons
Remyís son Sebastian (Stephane Rousseau) to the scene. A
millionaire investment broker with the bland good looks of David
Duchovny, Sebastian has long since cut ties with his elder. After
much begging on his motherís part, the descendant reluctantly
visits his ailing dad, brandishing a cell phone and laptop computer.
The boyís yuppie lifestyle is at odds with Remy, a self-proclaimed
"sensual socialist" who labels Sebastian a
never read a book," complains the snooty pop. "He may not
read," counters Sebastianís proud mother, "but he makes
more in a month than you do in a year."
on a physical level, Remy and Sebastian appear as polar opposites,
the older manís doughy features contrasting wildly with his
sonís lean, wiry profile. And herein lies the question at the
heart of "Barbarian Invasions." Can a father who shares
virtually nothing in common with his son find closure as he
reluctantly nears deathís door? Can both elder and offspring find
some middle ground, and identify with one another in an emotionally
satisfying final truce?
few giggles are generated by Sebastianís money-based values
system, as he buys off a hospitalís administrator and union to
move his father into a more respectable room. Later, he attempts to
curb Remyís pain by scoring some illicit drugs with a little help
from the local police precinct. "I hoped you could recommend a
spot where I could find some high-quality heroin," he naively
explains to the amused and disbelieving cops.
Remy is introduced to
heroin, in an eerie scene involving the junkie daughter of a past
mistress (Marie-Josee Croze, in a dynamic performance that captures
the manic highs and rock-bottom lows of smack abuse). "The
first hit is always the best," insists the young addict, her
world-weary face suddenly aglow with enthusiasm as she shares the
forbidden fruit. "Itís the one you long for. They call it
Ďriding the dragon.í"
weíre introduced to the educatorís clique of college buddies,
all of whom have mellowed with age. "The only powder I sniff
now," says one reformed counterculture rebel, "is
ĎBabyís Own.í" In another clever scene, after Remy has
deteriorated and is taken to a lakeside cabin to live out his
precious final moments, such chums ponder the various causes once
they embraced. "Was there an Ďismí we didnít
worship?" asks pal Pierre (Pierre Curzi), before the group
recites a long laundry list that includes Maoism, Freudianism,
Socialism, Humanism, and Separatism.
laughter is juxtaposed by Remyís bitter take on world history.
"The history of mankind," he laments, "is a history
of horrors." Throughout "Barbarian Invasions,"
characters speak of civilizationís constant state of flux, and the
inevitable changes that transpire as unfamiliar forces shape the
course of humanity. Many are tragic, such as the 9/11 attacks
(briefly glimpsed through television footage). But are such changes always
horrific, or must Remy come to acknowledge that some societal shifts
are for the better? Can he embrace Sebastianís uniquely different
qualities, for instance, and not be afraid of them?
is a moving film, but one that often seems to embrace its
complicated character with too much admiration. After all, his
students are so indifferent to Remyís illness that Sebastian must
bribe them to visit. Heís a self-absorbed man, and moviegoers
might well perceive Remy as nothing more than a selfish cad. In
choosing the path of wine, women, and song, while shirking the
responsibilities inherent to marriage and parenting, perhaps his
children, lovers, and students have reason to find fault.
Remyís flaws are also what makes Arcandís movie so unique.
Hereís a far from perfect man trying to learn from his mistakes,
even as his mortality closes in. Perhaps Arcand is trying to tell us
that we might not have control over the changing tides of history,
but we can continue playing a part in the lives of those we love,
even as they morph and develop in way not completely understood.
"Embrace the unknown," offers a caregiver as the filmís
lead character slips away. Like an encounter with Remy the man, Barbarian Invasions is an emotional, infuriating journey thatís
ultimately worth taking.
R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult