The Barbarian Invasions [Les Invasions Barbares]

| January 12, 2004

The title The Barbarian Invasions refers to the notion of being attacked from within, overtly linked to a television analysis of the Twin Towers attack, but echoed more poignantly in the cancer wracking main character Remy’s body as he struggles within what appears to be a collapsing Canadian health care system. Wrapped around all of this are a variety of meditations on the role of cultural ignorance, whether in terms of sexual behavior, capitalism, drugs or the Cultural Revolution in China. Within the confines of this film, we glimpse a world that is almost post-modern, a mish-mash of forms and structures and dynamics that don’t quite relate but are somehow interconnected. It is not clear if this is a world in ruins or simply in uneasy transition. But all of these concerns are nestled in a moving family drama of a man’s slow surrender to cancer and his estranged son’s attempt to make the final days more comfortable and less painful.
The Barbarian Invasions is the kind of film that in the United States would get made as a melodramatic movie of the week, but in Denys Arcand’s deft hands, the film does not seem manipulative. If there’s a flaw to this strategy, it’s that the film is so set against milking particular emotional moments that a few of the scene transitions (always fades to black) seem a bit abrupt; but overall, the film carries a poignancy often lacking in Hollywood fanfare.
Though it has been a number of years since I’ve seen The Decline Of The American Empire, I would have to say that my impression is that The Barbarian Invasions feels more polished, willing to explore the emotional territory of its subject matter as well as the intellectual. Denys Arcand is perhaps best known in the United States for 1989’s Jesus Of Montreal though he releases new work every three to four years — unfortunately, we in the United States do not usually get to see his film work distributed here. But something in The Barbarian Invasions has captured US distributors’ interest if not hearts and the film is enjoying a fair degree of popularity along with its critical acclaim.
Marie-Josee Croze won the 2003 Cannes Prize for her understated but elegant performance as Nathalie, the heroin-addicted daughter of one of Remy’s friends. Stephane Rousseau does fine work as the estranged son whose capitalism buys his father small comforts ranging from a private hospital room to drugs for the pain to paying former students to come visit their dying professor. Marina Hands is wonderful as Gaelle, the devoted daughter who cannot be by her father’s bedside. Micheline Lanctot is excellent as the nurse. But it is Remy Girard who captures the performance necessary to reveal his character as the star around which all else in this story revolves, the gravity by which he holds people in idiosyncratic orbit around him gradually collapsing in on itself. The performances in this film stand in stark relief to those in a film like 21 Grams and ultimately are more powerful.
The film is Canada’s official submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film, a fact that has sparked some discussion on various film sites as to whether such an honor is an insult to a filmmaker who is so closely identified with Quebecois film. Politics aside, though, this film is rich and deserving of the attention it has received.
There may be no salve for the end of days and our own personal convictions may mean less than the people we care for and who care for us.

About the Author:

Josef Steiff Joe Steiff would gladly spend his days and nights watching movies and TV with a little writing on the side. Oh, and teach at Columbia College in Chicago. And maybe play Mass Effect. But sleep gets in the way. He's made a few films. edited Popular Culture and Philosophy volumes on Battlestar Galactica, Anime, Manga and Sherlock Holmes for Open Court Books, wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Independent Filmmaking and is a co-author of Storytelling Across Worlds: Transmedia for Creatives and Producers.
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