Barbarian Invasions, The (Canada, 2003) ****
Written and directed by Denys Arcand; photography, Guy Dufaux; editing, Isabelle Dedieu; music, Pierre Aviat; production design, François Séguin; produced by Denise Robert & Daniel Louis; a Miramax release. In French with subtitles. 99 minutes. Rated R. CAST: Remy Girard (Rémy) Stéphane Rousseau (Sébastien), Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-Josée Croze (as Nathalie), et al.
Run, don’t walk to see this movie. At the 2003 Cannes Festival it was my unquestionable choice for the Golden Palm. It went to “Elephant” by Gus Van Sant. But “The Barbarian Invasions” did get best screenplay and best actress (Marie-Josee Croze) awards; at the Oscars is was Best Foreign Film; at the Cesars (the French Oscars) it won Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay. In a host of festivals major prizes were given.
Its maker, the Montrealian Denys Arcand, has a smallish but excellent output. He came to world attention with “The Decline of the American Empire” (1986) and “Jesus of Montreal” (1989) both winners of top awards internationally. They, plus “Barbarian” are remarkable ensemble pieces.
Here, Remy, a 50-something university professor of History, and a major womanizer to the end, is terminally ill in a Montreal hospital. His former wife persuades their son Sebastien, (now a London-based big wheeler-dealer businessman) to come over. Sebastien had never been close to his father. The pragmatic, materialistic concerns of his generation are at the opposite pole of his father’s circle and age-group. Nevertheless Sebastien is of help . he tries to get illegal heroin to alleviate Remy’s pain; he bribes the corrupt labor union for better room facilities. The movie opens with a devastating (and very funny) send-up of Canadian public health, the system, the structures.
A circle of old friends and relatives, their families, former mistresses, and others, gather around the wonderfully original and witty Remy, joking with much naturalness. The movie ends with one of the best closures in cinema. The combination of humor, satire, warmth, sex and death is unique.
What we have here is 99 minutes of screen perfection, realism, stock-taking, joie-de-vivre, satire, cynicism, tenderness, humor, feelings (but neither Hollywoodian sentimentality nor French schizophrenia.) It is a classic that creates its own genre.
Many in the cast reprise their screen persona from “The Decline of the American Empire” --but they are now 17 years older. And wiser? You decide.
Mind you, neither “Decline” nor “ Barbarian” are anti-American films. The current movie’s title refers to the whole world of today being invaded by barbarians, and notably to the 9/11 tragedy. Performances are superb. They do justice to Mr. Arcand’s very clever as well as intelligent script.
In “Decline” we witnessed a meeting of friends who talk of their problems, desires, concerns and mainly about women. It was like a bull session, but one by educated bulls. “Barbarian” is a close relative of the earlier movie. It is funny and it is sad. It is intellectual but not pedantic, it is most accessible but not superficial, not “lite” stuff.
Humor of several types reigns, from very personal to general. Remy who calls himself “a sensual socialist” --and his cohorts were mostly idealist leftists. He sticks to some of his earlier beliefs yet also mocks himself and those like him for their earlier adoptions of isms, political as well as cultural: Marxism, structuralism, etc. etc. There’s a nostalgia for some of the past yet also a consciousness of silly idealisms.
It is all touching, clever, funny, witty, fascinating as well as entertaining. It rings true. And, while visuals are first-rate, the spoken word, for a change, in dialogue, verbal exchanges and monologues, reclaims an old importance that’s on the road to near-extinction nowadays. (No, this is definitely not filmed theater!)
What a relief it is, with its absence of heroics, of “action” in the Hollywood sense, special effects, one dimensional characters and déjà vu all over again! The film is beautifully orchestrated, like chamber music.
Is it possible to make a comedy about death? Don’t say no. Denys Arcand has done it.