Film Reviews

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS

By • Nov 21st, 2003 •

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Miramax / French Canadian / 99 mins / Rated ‘R’

Any sincere film enthusiast who claims The Barbarian Invasions doesn’t possess the characteristics of superior filmmaking and storytelling—i.e. gripping performances, compelling cinematography, witty and genuinely affecting dialogue and a provocative read of loaded subject matter—is either asleep at the celluloid wheel or indulging in a reckless joy ride of contrarian posturing. Much like an elaborate meal prepared by a celebrated chef, the film contains only the finest ingredients. Unfortunately, for this repast the celebrated Denys Arcand has prepared too many “legumes” and not enough dessert. This one-hour-and-forty-five-minute revisiting of characters he originally created 17 years ago for his Oscar-nominated film The Decline of the American Empire sometimes feels more like two-and-a-half on the old Pritikin diet.

The imminent death of Remy (played by the marvelous Remy Girard) provides the catalyst for a solar system of reunions—or invasions: spousal, collegial and filial.

Louise, Remy’s deeply ambivalent ex is drawn by her former husband’s intelligent warmth and voluble charm, while repelled by his insatiable hedonism and dyspeptic self-absorption. Now forced to assess their tortuous relationship, she paradoxically and aptly notes, “It took me years to finally realize he was the man for me.”

Reprising the roles of Remy’s various friends and lovers from The Decline are: Pierre (Pierre Curzi), who now sports a wife half his age and reveals he’s quite a changed man, when he informs the old gang that “The only powder I sniff now is Baby’s Own”; the irreverent, gay Claude (Yves Jacques); Diane (Louise Portal), a former doyenne of free love, who now concerns herself primarily with thoughts about her estranged, heroine-addicted daughter Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze); and another ex-mistress of Remy’s, Dominique (Dominique Michel), whose “nocturnal pleasures are now delivered by my giant-screen digital Toshiba installed at the foot of my bed.”

Clearly though, it is the orbital path of Remy’s estranged son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) around his father that supplies the film with its primary axis. In fact, Barbarians begins by articulating the long-marinating tensions between a sworn, Uber-capitalist investment banker son and a dyed-in-the-wool socialist intellectual father. Upon hearing about his father’s terminal illness, Sebastian begrudgingly makes the trip from London to Canada, pointedly reminding his mother (and later on, Remy) that he’s only coming for her sake. From the moment of his arrival at the hospital, Sebastian and Remy play out the dynamic of ideological opposites whose combined emotional charge could only be that of a father and son. The Oedipal thrust and parry here between a son who insists on taking his father to a “modern” American hospital and a father who flatly refuses is the best part of this film. Sebastian works the Byzantine bureaucracy of socialized medicine by injecting it (sometimes literally) with the ultimate capitalist drug—wads of cash—while simultaneously procuring the reunion of Remy’s friends, high-quality heroin (providing the ultimate analgesic for the dying patient) and Pierre’s cabin for a last Big Chill-style farewell weekend with friends and family.

Barbarians’ problems begin and continue, however, with Arcand’s non-stop need to use Remy’s cadre of colleagues and ex-lovers as mouthpieces to promulgate his social and political views. For long, indulgent stretches of the film, one gets the feeling of being bombarded with a bouillabaisse of mid and late 20th century “isms.” In fact, during one scene at the cabin toward the end of the film, the ensemble actually reels off a barrage of isms. Indeed, here Remy’s cohorts often serve as the two-dimensional vessels heralding the decline of real conversation and the arrival of didactic, frankly Yuppie platitudes. Perhaps, 17 years later, the temptation to invade true narrative with one’s personal manifesto on life has become too great. One is tempted to imagine that Arcand is philosophizing about his own career, when, in a moment of stoned, existential desperation, Remy confronts his fear of the finite, as he contemplates his personal horror at the prospect of “the end of me.”

Ultimately, Barbarians is a highly self-indulgent exercise, but one very much worth seeing for the caliber of performances, alone.

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