Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film this year, writer/director Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions is both easy to admire and easy to love. Even so, it’s not especially creative as moviemaking goes — though that’s perhaps entirely because it is the work of Arcand (such that I’m not even sure that’s a valid criticism).
Though I have a personal preference for Arcand’s Love and Human Remains (possibly because it wasn’t written by him, which broadened its scope), he’s probably best known for Jesus of Montreal and The Decline of the American Empire. In fact, many of the same characters and actors from that latter film also inhabit The Barbarian Invasions; the new film focuses specifically on Decline character Remy (Arcand regular Remy Girard), now 17 years later, as he’s facing his last days on earth at the end of a battle with cancer.
Simplistically, Invasions is rather like a less bleak and more human — and humane — version of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, but with a much younger man (here in his early 50s) looking back on his life. However, Arcand approaches the material very differently; he’s more of a humanist than Bergman, and also less oblique. His is less a film about Remy’s late-in-the-day introspection and more one about the people in the dying man’s life, and the relationships he has with them.
In this regard, Invasions is more like a non-fantasticated Big Fish. And like that recent Tim Burton film, a good bit of Arcand’s movie deals with the strained relationship between father and son (Stephane Rousseau). Arcand’s characters, however, are more grounded in the reality of the everyday — something in keeping with the entire tone of the film, which offers glimpses of the shortcomings of the Canadian health-care system, the lackadaisical attitude of the police toward narcotics dealers, etc. While Arcand makes no direct comment on any of the social ills he depicts, he carefully integrates them into the very fabric of his film.
Arcand’s aims differ from Burton’s, perhaps because the Canadian filmmaker is considerably older. There’s a sense of self-examination here, especially in the scene where Remy and his old friends are cataloging the various artistic and political movements (starting with existentialism and ending with structuralism) that they’ve taken up as “the answer” over the years. They have arrived at the conclusion (as, presumably, has Arcand) that “the answer” doesn’t exist, and perhaps doesn’t even matter — but that the right questions still do.
In fact, Invasions is ultimately a film about questions. The strained relationship between Remy and his son only starts to thaw when the socialist-minded Remy finally asks his much-disdained millionaire offspring what it is he does for a living. But in the end, it’s the unasked questions — the son not inquiring whether his fiancee (Marina Hands) loves him (she doesn’t; she loves his presumed stability), or the son and the drug addict (Marie-Josee Croze) never asking what they feel for each other — that linger.
Given the nature of the material, Arcand’s handling of it is surprising; it’s all light and even humorous, which is probably for the best, since his film comes complete with its own unasked questions that he would doubtless prefer we leave that way. Are we prepared to believe, for instance, that Remy’s various friends and lovers are willing to forgive all and spend an indeterminate period of time at his side? Even if we accept that, there are nagging practical concerns: How many people are able to put their own lives so completely on hold, as this deathbed vigil requires?
But that isn’t what this film is about; in fact, this isn’t a movie that cares much about realism in that sense. The Barbarian Invasions is about the ideas being put forth in the characters’ interactions — and on that level, Arcand scores magnificently. At a time when theaters are full of explosions, revenge scenarios and over-the-top sadism, it’s a blessed relief just to find a movie that’s about ideas and forgiveness.
– reviewed by Ken Hanke