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The Barbarian Invasions (2003)

by on 2012/11/26

“It’s always this way. That’s life.”

* * * * *

Writer/director Denys Arcand’s follow-up to The Decline of the American Empire reminded me less of a Francophone Breakfast Club and more of the first half of Hawks — or The Bucket List for Americans — grafted onto an inverted Before Sunset.

I apologize, that’s a terrible introduction, however accurate. The Barbarian Invasions is a film I personally find difficult to describe or, at least, critique.

A discomfiting blend of existential angst and flippant joie de vivre, it shows us scenes from the final days of a terminal patient and his sprawling ensemble of acquaintances. The core triangle of interactions which most appealed to me involved the ailing socialist Remy (Remy Girard), his estranged capitalist son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), and a heroin-addicted friend, Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze).

Despite the distance between them, and resistance by Remy, his son uses money and influence to manage his father’s comfort. He arranges private care, good food, alcohol, drugs, and a score of visitors back from the previous film. Not everyone returns, but many do. Even the newer faces may be familiar to Canadian audiences, notably Roy Dupuis (Screamers) and singer Mitsou.

As someone who identifies as Ontarian yet also European, I nonetheless felt the same “foreign” vibe I noted in Decline. Not for location, language, or politics . . . rather for interpersonal dynamics. Our adulterous anti-hero lies in a hospital bed, attended by an ex-wife, multiple mistresses, a religious sister, and Sebastien. Sometimes several come at once, sometimes fewer, in awkward combinations, having awkward conversations. At first I thought of dominoes, later of drops in a pool. The relationships cascade from him to others, and so on, in turn, rarely in isolation, ever affecting while being affected too.

I needed to reset my expectations again in other ways. Several times, I found myself distanced by thick layers of bourgeois presumption. Not only did I feel some outrage that money could triumph over (almost) anything, I took umbrage with these characters assuming their entitlements. The former might be a fact of life, but the latter rankled at me. Why should Remy have privacy or guests at his whim, when others have no such choice? Shuttle service, border-hopping treatment, field trips, and protection? Better food and drink? Or elective narcotics?

I reoriented myself in their mindset, and discovered more relative charms. Their openness, exceptional levels of tolerance, regard for education and, ultimately, desire for meaning. When does one understand anything? What is the nature of success? How can one know enough to die at peace? Is it possible to leave a significant mark on the world? What is our best, and is it good enough?

However universal such personal concerns may be, Arcand overlays still more, with the title’s “barbarian invasions” serving as a possible analogy for the issues discussed and acted out: bureaucracy and unions, church and state, cops and robbers, cultural clashes, elders and youngers, even fantasy and reality.

My initial reaction was that this is the kind of experience Gru would call “absolutely brain-breaking”. There is no easy entry, and no easy end. Once the insidious Barbarian Invasions has taken root in your mind, you’ll be hard put to wrench yourself away from its edifying ideas.

A terrible conclusion as well, but it’s also how I feel.

Perhaps there are no satisfying conclusions.


* * * * *

Rated 14A

113 minutes

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