Written and directed by Denys Arcand
Produced by Daniel Louis and Denise Robert
Starring Rémy Girard, Stéphan Rousseau,
Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique
Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-Josée
Croze, Marina Hands, Toni Cecchinato, Mitsou Gélinas
and Johanne-Marie Tremblay
In French with English subtitles
Opening at the Broadway
Quebecois writer/director Denys Arcand realizes
that a film can be much more poignant if it has a
sense of cynicism. The emotions of his new work, “The
Barbarian Invasions,” catch you off-guard because
you don’t expect such strong feelings to come
out of a smart, funny film about a man who lived
The film portrays what’s likely a very uncommon
way to die, in which a lovable yet unreliable man
manages to find forgiveness and acceptance from his
friends and family for his various misgivings. If
Arcand is a bit too romantic in communicating his
thoughts on death, it’s because a too-serious
film would become stagnant and pretentious.
The dying man is Rémy (Rémy Girard),
the same opinionated, wine-drinking, womanizing professor
from Arcand’s 1986 film “The Decline
of theAmerican Empire,” now in his 50s. While
the film stands perfectly well on its own, the revisiting
of Rémy and his fellow left-wing intellectuals
creates the feeling of catching up with old friends.
Rémy faces death at a time when he sees civilization
in decline, as people forget all the great writers
of earlier centuries. No one much cares about preserving
his library or his work.
Rémy’s son, Sébastien (Stephane
Rousseau), is a successful and wealthy businessman
in England, much to his father’s chagrin. He
could have at least read one book, Rémy comments
Still, Sébastien flies to Montreal when he
hears of his father’s illness. His mother and
Rémy’s ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée
Berryman), encourages him because she’s taken
to looking after Rémy despite his frequent
past cheating, believing that her ex-husband is still,
in a sense, her man.
Sébastien doesn’t understand or really
know his father, but he wants to make his final days
easier. So he calls up Rémy’s friends
from “The Decline of the American Empire” to
fly in to be with his father until he dies.
Pierre (Pierre Curzi) has married a younger, 30-something
beautiful woman (Mitsou Gélinas), and breaks
the ice by raving about it before any of his friends
can make smart-ass comments. He’s proud of
starting a new family. Claude (Yves Jacques) combines
wisecracks, sexual innuendoes and scientific hypotheses
(including one on Pierre’s wife’s breasts: “The
quantity of blood needed to just irrigate it all
must drain the brains out.”)
Diane (Louise Portal), one of Rémy’s
old mistresses, asks how “the old sex maniac” is
when she arrives, but is also distraught over her
daughter, who’s addicted to drugs. Another
of Rémy’s mistresses, Dominique (Dominique
Michel) also returns.
Reunited, the old friends
engage in thoughtful conversation with witty insight
and bawdy jokes. The dialogue isn’t based on
the plot, but on life and how it is— and should
be— lived. Despite their
various character flaws, these people are quite charming,
and their flaws are admirable ones for no other reason
than that they’ve lived fully enjoyable lives,
although sometimes at others’ expense.
Rémy, for example, has made many mistakes
in his quest for supreme happiness, but his friends
still want him to die happy and without regrets.
They talk about history, progress and his life and
he complains about all of them, but finds happiness
in his friends.
While the characters believe deeply in political
ideals, Arcand treats both sides with skepticism.
While negative things are said about corporate globalization,
there are more comments on the intellectual circles
in the film. The Canadian health-care system, for
example, is a bit of a mess, but Rémy insists
on using the system that he fought for when his son
tries to bring him to the United States for treatment.
This doesn’t stop Sébastien, however,
from beating the poor hospital care with some clever
bribery that gets Rémy a private room on an
Sébastien’s other antics include a very
funny attempt to buy illegal drugs for his father—he
goes to a police station and asks where he can find
some. Diane’s estranged, addicted daughter
Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), however, is
able to help out and also reaches out to Sébastien
from her grittier world.
Croze won the Best Actress award at the Cannes Film
Festival (where Arcand also won for Best Screenplay)
with her honest depiction of an emotionally torn
woman doing her best to find freedom and humanity
by helping Sébastien and his father, both
of whom are worlds away from her. She and Sébastien
find an unexpected harmony with one another.
The other major bridge built in the film is that
between the old and the young. As Rémy’s
character passes, the film creates an arc with his
son. The new world of global corporations and big
business, seen in Sébastien, is conquering
the world of academia and philosophy. But maybe,
the film wishfully dreams, the two might be able
to reach a level of understanding.