The Barbarian Invasions Review
Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a financier working in London, is called back to Montreal as his University professor father Rémy (Rémy Girard) has terminal cancer. Father and capitalist son have never got on, but in the face of this crisis, Stéphane has to do his best to tend to his father’s needs, even if that means scoring heroin on the streets. As the days pass, Rémy’s friends and several former mistresses gather for one last reunion…
In 1986, Quebecois writer/director Denys Arcand made The Decline of the American Empire, the film which made his international reputation. The Barbarian Invasions is its sequel, reuniting most of the major characters of the earlier film. You don’t have to have seen Decline to watch this new film, though if you have you may spot a few references back. (At least one minor character from Arcand’s 1989 film Jesus of Montreal makes a brief appearance here too.) Any undue sentimentality is kept at bay by Arcand’s witty, cynical, sometimes quite bawdy dialogue. The title has two meanings: for a committed Socialist like Rémy his son’s capitalist ways are anathema, indeed barbarous. Also, in one scene we see a talking head on TV speak about 9/11, which struck right at the heart of the American Empire. In the future, he says, we may see the destruction of the World Trade Center as the beginning of the barbarian invasions.
Rémy and his circle of friends aren’t always likeable (posturing pseudo-intellectuals, to the unsympathetic) and aren’t meant to be. But if Arcand was unsparing in his satire in the earlier film he seems to have mellowed in the intervening seventeen years. These men and women are now in their fifties and they all realise that none of them has lived up to their potential. Claude (Yves Jacques) has settled for an easy job in Rome, with an Italian boyfriend. Pierre (Pierre Curzi) has found some fulfilment as a new father. In the latter stages, everyone assembles at Rémy’s lakefront house (the setting for much of Decline) to attend their friend’s final days. In one telling scene they compare all the isms they followed – Marxism, Maoism, structuralism, deconstructivism, feminism – and what good did it do them? But the heart of the movie rests with two scenes where Rémy’s daughter, unable to attend due to sailing solo across the Pacific, sends messages by satellite link. Yes, Rémy may never have achieved very much, or as much as he might have, but at least he had a lust for life, and she has inherited it.
It’s a pleasure to see a film as intelligent and witty, and finally moving, as this. The Barbarian Invasions is a return to form for Arcand, and a treat.