The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions Barbares)

Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions Barbares) (2003)

The eponymous barbarians in Denys Arcand’s powerful and moving film are most directly alluded to in an unusually graphic piece of September 11 footage, a full frontal and closeup shot of a plane slicing into the World Trade Center. But the atrocities of terrorists function here as metaphor for a broader sweep of assaults–the constant, seemingly entropic onslaught on civilized life from all directions: a health care system that is out of control, the plague of narcotics, the indifference of bureaucrats, the disintegration of moral and ethical standards, the erosion of intellectual endeavor, and, too, the ultimate invasive encroachment of mortality.

The brilliance of Arcand’s movie is to address these seminal themes in terms of a handful of characters, skillfully written and finely performed so as to become human beings to care about–interesting mixtures of love and past hurts, of kindnesses and giving, of squabbles and reconciliations, of strengths and weaknesses, of joy and sorrow, of family and friends.

At the center is Remy (Remy Girard), a professor of history, a reader of books, a lover of women and good wine. He is in a Quebec hospital, dying of cancer, a hospital where every hallway is filled with patients for whom there are no rooms, where there’s a six week wait to get a needed PETscan, where theft is rampant and the unions seem to run the show. Girard’s son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), a successful and wealthy arbitrageur, flies in from his home in London and confidently proceeds to spread around large sums of money to provide his father the comforts and care that he needs. The father-son relationship has been distant and feelings between them largely unexpressed.

There’s also a daughter who has escaped into a life working at sea; through the miracles of modern technology, she can send video messages to her father in which she expresses her feelings to him. Remy is long divorced from his wife, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who still adores him, but wasn’t willing to put up with his extra-marital activity which began six months into their marriage. As mothers are wont to be, she’s a buffer between father and son.

Sebastien not only sees to his father’s comfort and healthcare; he calls his father’s oldest and dearest friends to come be near at the end. Ex-mistresses, family-man Pierre, a gay couple–they gather around his hospital bed and later at the country house where he goes to die. Each character is etched with deft and economical strokes of dialogue. As a group, when young, they were educated, smart, and sexually liberated. It’s clear they had a helluva good time, for which none feel the need to make apologies. Their ongoing love for one another is manifest without being mawkish; their clear-sighted wit is bracing and funny. The one dark character in the mix is Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), daughter of a former mistress, estranged from her mother, and a dope addict. She is drawn into Sebastien’s support system for his father which has an unanticipated effect on her.

All the group, too, are dealing with the changes of aging, particularly the cooling of sexual energies. Remy, not a religious man, is counseled by a kindly Catholic nurse. He tells her that he holds on and that life is grand because of books, wine, and (most of all) women. She gently points out to him then that "it’s the past you cling to, " i.e., those pleasures are no longer in play in his life. Mortality is an invader whose inroads begin before death; it’s a giving up of the things of life, sometimes progressive, sometimes more quickly. And sometimes there are choices that can be made about a good death.

While The Barbarian Invasions centers on death and dying, Arcand never slips into sentimentality, in perfect keeping with both the sophistication of his characters and good movie-making. The joy that these people take in life is as important as the inevitability of death; surviving the Invasion is the triumph of life while it is lived.There’s plenty of humor in this film and there is sadness, too, but as a statement of faith on overcoming the Invaders it is transcendently uplifting. If your tears flow (which they assuredly will), they will be cathartic tears, tears as much of joy and affirmation as of sadness.

Arthur Lazere

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