The Barbarian Invasions (2003)
Death Becomes Them
By Jeffrey M. Anderson
In Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, the bald, flabby,bespectacled Remy (Remy Girard) is slowly dying. He never makes amiraculous recovery, nor does he renounce his sinful lifestyle, nor doeshe leave behind a fortune for his friends and family to enjoy. He's agoner.
How difficult it must be to get producers to finance a film about death, not to mention getting audiences to pay to see a film about death.
The reason The Barbarian Invasions succeeds is because -- to quote an old critical chestnut -- it's really about life.
Even though Remy destroyed his family with a lifelong obsession with sex and cheating, his wealthy, conservative entrepreneur son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) still comes to the hospital to look after his father.
Arcand doesn't have very nice things to say about Canada's public health care system. Stuck in a room with several other patients, Remy shrugs and says, "I'm lucky I'm not still out in the hall."
Sebastien's idea of care doesn't include much sitting around the bedside. Instead he uses his power and wealth to get his father a single room and to score some heroin to ease his pains.
Fortunately, a host of Remy's friends and family come to see him, including a gay couple, two former mistresses and an ex-wife. His daughter -- out on a sailing trip -- occasionally e-mails a digital video to express her love.
Remarkably, the film doesn't let itself get stuck inside the hospital, nor does it become one of those weepy "hospital dramas." Arcand's fluid camera weaves through the hallways and casually surveys the characters' faces, remaining unobtrusive but visually alive.
He also follows several of the supporting characters outside. Watching Sebastien slyly working the teamsters or trying to persuade a couple of cops to tell him where he can get heroin becomes part of the movie's peculiar joys.
The daughter of one of Remy's mistresses, Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze in a beautiful performance), eventually becomes Remy's most feasible drug source. During her sessions with Remy showing him how to smoke and/or shoot heroin, she becomes one of the film's most fascinating personalities. As a junkie perched on the edge of life, her talks with Remy reveal some of the movie's most naked truths. With her, he wonders if he hasn't been living in the past a bit too much.
Otherwise, the movie centers on Remy and his old friends as they talk about sex and politics and how they spent their lives. It's clear that Remy enjoyed every moment of his life and his large heart and active personality have touched many lives.
Most of the scenes have some quotable dialogue, such as the one in which the friends describe the many political groups they belonged to. ''Was there an 'ism' we didn't worship?'' one of them asks. "Cretinism," comes the answer. To that, Remy responds with yet another funny, heartbreaking story.
Arcand constantly shoots out little topical tendrils, commenting on issues ranging all over the map, from China, to America's founding fathers, to 9/11, to intelligence, to politics, to sex and sexual fantasies. We follow these slender threads with ease -- the same as we follow the shifting topics in My Dinner with Andre -- even if Arcand sporadically stoops to the obvious. Occasionally his political tirades grow tiresome or his vulgar stories go too far.
Ultimately, though, Arcand makes us care for the characters above anything else. What they say is just an extension of who they are, not little messages the filmmaker wants us to take home with us. When Remy and S�bastien say their final goodbye, face-to-face, there's not a dry eye in the house. And every teardrop is absolutely earned.
DVD Details: This Oscar-winner for Best Foreign Language film may prove more difficult to watch at home -- its intense intimacy does better in a darkened theater with no chance of pausing. Yet because it's such a small, life-affirming story, those who brave it will find themselves nonetheless duly rewarded. The DVD comes letterboxed (2.35-to-1) with optional English subtitles and a 51-minute documentary, Inside The Barbarian Invasions. Trailers include such Miramax theatrical and video releases as Shall We Dance?, Paper Clips, The Human Stain, My Voyage to Italy and People I Know.