Les Invasions barbares

Rémy (Rémy Girard) has always been a bon vivant, a lover of “wine, books, music and women, especially women”. A shamelessly flirtatious History teacher, he spent his life enjoying himself intellectually and physically. Even now that he’s in the hospital, mere weeks from passing away, Rémy has kept his sense of humor. So have his old friends, all back in Montréal to say their last goodbyes. There’s former colleagues and lovers Dominique (Dominique Michel) and Diane (Louise Portal), homosexual friend Claude (Yves Jacques) and Pierre (Pierre Curzi), who used to be as much of a skirt-chaser as Rémy but has since settled down with Ghislaine (Mitsou). Even Louise (Dorothée Berryman) is at the side of her serial adulterer ex-husband. Only his children are missing: Sylvaine (Isabelle Blais) is on a sailboat halfway around the world and Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) is working as a broker in London. After much begging from his mother, Sébastien finally returns to take care of his father, and the heart of the film is in their ailing relationship.

“Les Invasions barbares” is writer-director Denys Arcand’s follow-up to 1986’s “Le Déclin de l’empire américain”, but while it revolves around the same group of friends and echoes some stylistic choices (the Steadycam shot over the opening titles, notably), it differs in many ways. I found Arcand’s latest much less pretentious than its overrated predecessor. Some intellectual grandstanding and genitals-gazing remains, but this film is actually closer to Arcand’s “Jésus de Montréal” in the way it skilfully balances social satire and intimate drama, each informing the other.

The Barbarian Invasions of the title refer to the 9/11 attacks on the American Empire but also to the cancerous cells invading Rémy’s body. Furthermore, in Rémy’s view, his son himself is one of the barbarians, “a capitalist and a puritan who has never opened a book”. Drugs are also described as an invasion, but they’re actually portrayed in a somewhat positive light. Indeed, Diane’s junkie daughter Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze, very convincing) is brought in to ease Rémy’s suffering with heroin, which is apparently more efficient than morphine.

The film presents harsh criticism of Quebec’s healthcare system, with its overpacked emergency rooms, overworked nurses and underachieving administrators. Much is made too about how ‘60s intellectuals went through all kinds of ideologies, both local (the Quebec separatist movement) and international (feminism, Marxism-Leninism, structuralism…), yet none of this matters much when you’re faced with your own mortality. Religion is viewed cynically as well, but Arcand acknowledges that in illness it’s sometimes the only solace one can afford.

The lead performances are particularly strong. Rémy Girard has long been one of our most engaging actors but Stéphane Rousseau (better known as a stand-up comic) matches him surprisingly well. Their last scenes together are very moving, as is the last video-letter Rémy receives from his daughter played by the extraordinary Isabelle Blais, who nearly steals the whole film in only a few minutes. Another wonderful scene is the one in which Rémy reminisces about the history of his sexual fantasies, which first bloomed from the sight of Inès Orsini’s thighs.

“Les Invasions barbares” is a welcomed return to form for Denys Arcand, his best film in more than a decade. Thematically it’s a film about death, but it plays more like an hymn to life. Don’t miss it!

UPDATE (5/25/03):
I saw the film again last Friday and liked it even more. I still feel that there are a few scenes that don’t work perfectly, but this remains a bitingly funny, moving and thought-provoking picture. The jury at this year’s Cannes Film Fest seems to agree as it awarded it the Palme for Best Screenplay and Best Actress (Marie-Josée Croze).