The French-Canadian The Barbarian Invasions (Les invasions barbares) won the Oscar as best foreign-language film of 2003. Prize-wise, 2003 was indeed the year of Barbarian Invasions. Its Québec-born filmmaker, Denys Arcand, won for his script at Cannes, where one of his actresses, Marie-Josée Croze, also placed first for the trenchant role of a young drug addict. In France, the film won Césars as best film and for Arcand in two categories: best director and best screenwriter. Arcand also won the International Award at the Eiropean Film Awards. Back home, Arcand’s film swept the Jutras (named for French-Canadian filmmaker Claude Jutra): best film, best director, best screenplay, best actress (Croze again), with another, special prize for Arcand thrown in. The Toronto Film Critics Association named Arcand’s script (along with Sofia Coppola’s for Lost in Translation) the year’s best, and the Vancouver Film Critics Circle named the film the year’s best and Arcand best director. Additionally, The Barbarian Invasions won as best film at Bangkok and as best foreign-language film from the National Board of Review, the Kansas City Film Critics, the San Diego Film Critics, and the Broadcast Film Critics. No film garnered more smooth or hoarse praise in 2003. Predictably, the world’s reaction divided into those who feel Arcand received his due and those who feel he received more than his due.
When it comes to Arcand, I who share his first name reflect the range of reception to his work. I thought that the film that put Arcand on the map, The Decline of the American Empire (1986), was vastly overrated. Suspiciously I went to see Jesus of Montréal (1989) and of course fell in love with it; Jesus has remained a favorite of mine throughout repeated viewings. Eagerly I attended Love & Human Remains (1993) and, despite the title, fell out of love with Arcand. What was this? Is it just me? What chance did I have to like The Barbarian Invasions, a years-later sequel to Decline of the American Empire, which I didn’t like in the first place? Well, at least this is a good film—and if it’s an emotional workout you’re after, The Barbarian Invasions delivers.
The situation is simple, elemental. A former university professor is at hospital dying painfully of cancer. His ex-wife is alone at his side until she convinces their son, who is semi-estranged from his father, to fly in from London, where he has become a millionaire working at a job on the London Stock Exchange. His father is a socialist. Their reconciliation, slow in coming, is heartrending. The man dies with his hands clasped in his son’s.
Before this near-finish, the boy, Sébastien, who is accompanied by his girlfriend, arranges for visitors for his father: former mistresses, former colleagues, old friends. He beams in messages from his absent sister on his laptop computer and pays former students of his father to visit their former professor and lavish praise on him. He even makes a deal with a former childhood friend of his own to keep her stocked in heroin if she will arrange to secure heroin for his father, to ease his pain. Capitalism has its rewards; seemingly there’s nothing it can’t buy.
“Do you know what I wish for?” Rémy asks son Sébastien shortly before dying. Rémy answers the question himself: “For you to be lucky enough to have a son like you.” Maybe you can resist this sort of thing; I don’t have the means for doing so. The whole audience with whom I saw the film was audibly wrecked. The returning prodigal son who had initially seemed to be preparing just desserts for the father who had cheated on his mother long ago instead dispenses loving, compassionate justice. The boy lightens and loosens up, laughing when his childhood friend, Nathalie, throws his cell phone into a fire mid-important business call; but he doesn’t fundamentally change. After his father’s death, he returns to his morally and emotionally bankrupt life. He could be human only under the direct influence of his very human father. Once this father is dead, the influence is canceled. That’s the ultimate irony: While Rémy was redeemed from the taint of having so worthless a son, Sébastien remains unredeemed and worthless despite his wealth. Against everything his father humanely and politically stood for, Sébastien will continue to be a “professional risk manager” for corporations enacting deals that disadvantage ordinary human beings, such as by polluting the environment. Arcand thus tempers his seemingly rosy ending with a cancerous twist. A good life ends; bad life in general goes on.
The film is beautiful, and not only for its compelling recognizable humanity, its satire of the limitations of socialized Canadian medical care, and its satirical reflections on civilization versus barbarism. (The title of the film ostensibly refers to the 9/11 atacks on New York’s World Trade Center’s Twin Towers.) There are also shots of skyscapes, seascapes, landscapes—exquisite inserts that, in context, mysteriously intimate life’s dimming and close. Arcand is fortunate in his color cinematographer, Guy Dufaux.
He is also fortunate in his actors. Reprising his Rémy from Decline of the American Empire, Rémy Girard gives a wonderful performance; not since Harriet Andersson’s Agnes in Ingmar Bergman’s Cries and Whispers (1972) has an actor so well succeeded in bringing us to an exacting awareness of dying’s tolls and demands. And more: Girard fully intimates the Rabelaisian life that Rémy’s death closes. In a much simpler role (that of a far lesser human being), Stéphane Rousseau fiercely and poignantly discloses Sébastien’s stunted emotional development. Marie-Josée Croze, in the bravura role of Nathalie, sears the soul; one keenly hopes throughout the film for some happy resolution of Nathalie’s unhappy predicament.
This is one of those films where sneaking a flask of liquid fortitude into the theater is highly recommended. Prepare yourself also for a lot of injections.