The Barbarian Invasions is showing up on a few top ten lists this year. And while it may or may not earn that distinction, it is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a low-key affair that starts on even, but uninteresting, ground. By the end we see that relationships have changed under our very noses, and a father and son who don’t see eye to eye manage to love each other anyway.
R for Language, sexual dialogue, drug content
In 1986, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand released an adult gathering-of-friends movie like The Big Chill. Four men prepare dinner at a house on the lake and talk about sex. Meanwhile, four women work out at the gym and talk about sex. Later that evening, all eight — authors, professors, and intellectuals — sit around the dining room table and talk about sex, although in a markedly different way than the same-sex groups had.
The film took its title — The Decline of the American Empire — from a book one of the characters had written. Her thesis was that as soon as a civilization started valuing individual enjoyment over individual duty, that civilization started its downfall. Furthermore, (in 1986) North America was on the brink of decline.
Fast-forward 17 years. The Empire continues its decline.
The Barbarian Invasions is not a sequel but a followup to Decline. Twenty years have passed. Rémy (Rémy Girard reprises his role), who had been sleeping around in Decline, has been divorced for some time. He recently had to stop teaching because of a cancer that looks like it will do him in.
A shot of the second jet crashing into the twin towers is shocking (and possibly gratuitous) “evidence” that the barbarians are invading North America. But the metaphor works better on a more personal level. Rémy’s son is now a foreigner — he has moved to England to work in finance. He returns to visit his dying father, and the resulting clash of generations is a more apt explanation for the film’s title.
Dad is an old intellectual who wishes his son had read “a single book, any book” growing up. But Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) has led his own life and does not apologize for it. He’s a financial wiz at a bank in England. When he unwinds, it is in a video arcade, not in an armchair.
Rémy’s ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman, also reprising her role) returns to his side as well. The only family member missing is his daughter, who lives on the sea, delivering yachts to rich clients. But even she makes an appearance. Sébastien’s laptop receives short movies from her yacht. So in spite of a life dominated by promiscuity and cheap affairs that destroyed his family, they are all there for him now. Soon his friends from 20 years ago arrive, filling his life with all his favorite people.
Best Care Money Can Buy
The movie takes several tangents, notably into the health care system of Canada. Crowded hospitals, waiting lists, and bus trips to Vermont for American care almost make up for the price of prescription drugs. “I voted for free health care” says Rémy “and I’ll live with it.”
Coming from the world of high finance, Sébastien would rather pay for top-notch care. He greases all the right palms to get his father a private room at the hospital on one of the unused floors. When his friend from the American hospital tells him that heroin is eight times more effective on Rémy’s pain than morphine, he even seeks to buy the illegal drug for his dad.
Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), is the daughter of one of the original eight friends. A user herself, she ultimately leads Sébastien to her supplier. He hires her to buy the drug for Rémy and to help him take it when the pain flares up, sparking an odd but touching friendship between Rémy and Nathalie.
Eventually, Rémy is ready to move to more pleasant surroundings. They take him to the house they all gathered in 20 years ago because Rémy likes the lake. Here, the tribe of friends and family realize it’s time to say goodbye.
In spite of their differences during the first hour of the film, it becomes clear that father and son have finally become close. They see the world through different eyes, but they meet on human ground. After a movie full of unlikely behavior and low-level bickering, it is wonderful to step back and see it all resolve into a big expression of love and generosity.
The last farewell in The Return of the King is moving, but it seems like a mere plot device compared to the genuine, messy, human farewell at the end of The Barbarian Invasions. A quiet, mundane shot of Sébastien in a plane a few days later ends the movie on just the right note.