The Barbarian Invasions


Rémy Girard as Rémy
Stéphane Rousseau as Sébastien
Dorothée Berryman as Louise
Louise Portal as Diane
Dominique Michel as Dominique
Yves Jacques as Claude
Pierre Curzi as Pierre
Marie-Josée Croze as Nathalie
Marina Hands as Gaëlle
Toni Cecchinato as Alessandro
Mitsou Gélinas as Ghislaine
Sophie Lorain as Première amoureuse
Johanne-Marie Tremblay as Soeur Constance Lazure
Denis Bouchard as Duhamel
Micheline Lanctôt as Carole l’infimière
Markita Boies as Suzanne l’infirmière
Isabelle Blais as Sylvaine
Sylvie Drapeau as Deuxième amoureuse
Yves Desgagnés as Olivier

This year and over the next few years, we’ll be seeing a lot of movie sequels based on some of the biggest movies of the 80’s and 90’s, such as Terminator 3 and Indiana Jones 4, with some of them coming out over a decade after the previous installment. Most of those franchises have made so much money that it makes sense to keep them alive.

Now imagine if you were the director of a breakthrough independent film from the early 80’s, and you decide to revisit the characters from the movie for which you first received attention. This is the case with The Barbarian Invasions, the latest from Denys Arcand, the writer/director of The Decline of the American Empire, a film that kick started a cinema Renaissance in his native Montreal before going on to an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. 17 years later, he has decided to revisit his characters, find out what they’ve been up to and how they’ve changed with the changing world around them.

The Barbarian Invasions focuses on the womanizing college professor, Remy, played by frequent Arcand collaborator Remy Girard. Now divorced and laying in a hospital ward, dying of cancer, he is reunited with his son, Sebastien, a wealthy investment banker, who has returned to Canada to make the last days of his father more bearable. Sebastien arranges to have him moved into a private room, brings his old gang of friends back together one last time and even gets him heroin to help ease his pain. The heroin comes along with Nathalie, the troubled junkie daughter of one of Remy’s former flames, who forms a fast friendship with Remy.

The resulting film is a warm and wonderful dialogue and character driven drama that keeps apace with the current world climate. While it may be more enjoyable if you’ve seen the original movie-which incidentally, I haven’t-it works just as well as a standalone story focusing on the relationship between Remy and his friends and family.

Remy’s reunion takes place around the time of the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center-disturbing footage of one of the planes hitting the tower is shown-and after the event, the discussions show how far reaching the effects of that tragedy were. That said, there is a bit of anti-American rhetoric in the film while discussing the attacks, as well as the effects of American culture on Canada. Beyond the actual attacks, the film covers a wealth of topics in order to flesh out the world in which the characters live, covering everything from the Canadian health care system to euthanasia to the drug problem. The title takes on different meanings to different characters, but essentially, it comes down to the “barbarians” being any foreigners to the country. The subject and the political implications are handled far more diplomatically than one might expect.

Since most of Remy’s friends are historians and philosophers, their conversations range from history to art to politics, religion, philosophy and sex. You need to be somewhat educated to really appreciate and understand some of the topics being discussed, and much of the humor will be lost on younger non-Canadians, since there are so many things that are topical only to the country. Some might find the frank discussion of sex among the older actors and actresses a bit uncomfortable, but it’s necessary to make the characters more believable. It’s impressive that Arcand’s characters are able to pick up where they left off seventeen years prior, and the viewer truly believes that they’ve spent that gap having full and productive lives.

Arcand’s intelligent and witty script is the film’s strongest attribute, so it should come as no surprise that it received recognition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Considering Montreal’s dual nationality, it makes sense that the pacing of the film is handled like a cross between a French drama and a British comedy. Still, it’s a classic “talking heads” movie that would have worked just as well as a theatre piece, and while the number of topics covered makes for a rich experience, it makes the movie a bit too disjointed and convoluted as Arcand tries to fit far too many ideas and plot threads into the story.

Most of the actors in Arcand’s latest will be unknown to the American public, but it’s an impressive cast with four performances that stand above the rest. Front and center is Girard, pulling out a memorable performance that mixes equal parts jovial humor and true emotion to make the character as real as one can be. Over the course of the film, it’s hard for the viewer to not love this person, making it even harder to watch his deteriorating condition over the course of the movie.

Remy’s interaction with the other characters is what drives the film, although it’s more about the younger people in his life than his lifelong friends from the first movie. Rousseau, a stand-up comic and singer in Canada, pulls out an impressive dramatic performance as Remy’s son, while another newcomer to the Arcand tableaux, Marie-Josee Croze, is equally believable as the troubled Nathalie. That said, some of the most enjoyable scenes pit Remy against a Catholic nurse, played by Johanne Marie Tremblay, who challenges many of his views on women and religion.

While it won’t be for everyone, The Barbarian Invasions is a complex, multi-layered story that might be considered one of the year’s best thinking person’s dramas. It’s a film that might stir up philosophical debates among those who enjoy politics, but it also runs the gamut of human emotions for those who enjoy comic dramas full of character interaction. Either way, The Barbarian Invasions is a pleasant and enjoyable experience, even if it’s not a movie that would never be considered light entertainment.

The Barbarian Invasions opens in New York and Los Angeles on November 21st, and expands to other cities over the course of December.