October 19, 2003

The Barbarian Invasions

Starring Rémy Girard and Stéphane Rousseau

Reviewed by Martin Tsai

A multiple winner at this year’s Cannes International Film Festival, The Barbarian Invasions is unquestionably the highest profile Canadian film this year. The film is unmistakably Canadien at its core, dealing with the idealism and politics of a generation that is near its end and already being replaced by a new generation whose values and priorities it cannot fathom. Relentlessly immersed in sentimentality and its witty worldview, this film will certainly strike a chord with the generation it depicts.

The dying generation in question here is the same one that writer-director Denys Arcand previously explored in his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, which shares many of the same characters with this film. And Decline’s free-wheeling libertine academic Rémy (Rémy Girard) is now facing an estranged son, a grave illness and impending death – challenges which force him to examine his life choices and philosophies.

Lying on his deathbed, Rémy is still robust as ever and flirting with the nurses. At the request of his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), his humourless and materialistic banker son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) flies in from London to visit. Despite the fact that Rémy looks upon his son’s success with condescension and disgust, Sébastien still dutifully helps in moving his father into a private hospital room, arranging medical examinations in the United States, and gathering old friends and old flings around his deathbed.

The film is replete with political overtones, and its title serves as a reference to the 9-11 terrorist attacks in New York City. The hospital is a platform for bureaucratic chaos, where bribery of union officials is the only way to get things done. The those-were-the-days laments by Rémy and his social circle of scholars and mistresses stretch from Quebecois separatism and American imperialism to Marxism and cretinism. Lots of sociological ideas are bounced around, but only a few are truly examined or analyzed. Some jokes are amusing, while others are borderline offensive.

The Barbarian Invasions is ultimately a eulogy for a generation, but one that neither celebrates that generation’s glory nor justifies its existence. Rémy finally manages to leave a slight impression on his estranged son during his last days, as the uptight Sébastien ultimately learns to lighten up a little. Still, Sébastien will probably never truly understand what made Rémy tick or discover the joie de vive that Rémy had always enjoyed. At best, he has finally reconciled with a father that he once chastised for being irresponsible.

© 2003 Martin Tsai. All rights reserved.