Early in Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions - this year's winner of the best foreign-language picture Academy Award, and incidentally, starring far more French Canadians than barbarians - Remy, a fading Montreal history professor (played by Remy Girard), lays on a gurney in the overcrowded ward of a Quebec hospital.
Socialized medicine is the rule. But triage is the reality. And yet there is no great desire by movie audiences to see a story about an academic dying badly and dishonorably of cancer. There is no box office in it. And so Arcand is broad in his comedy and generous in his sentiment: You can only hope that when the story wraps at a lakeside cabin in autumn, with Remy's friends and family swooning by his side, you will die like this someday, as nicely as Remy dies.
As far as baby-boomer nostalgia and death-wish fantasies go, this one's tasty. If not also mildly annoying: For a central character, and presumably Arcand's representative of his own 1960s Quebecois radicalism, Remy is not generous. He is self-absorbed and he speaks of his life in the pompous way of someone convinced he is the last man alive who avoided selling out. And yet in these remaining moments of that life, his cherished beliefs are thrown against a wall by Arcand, and the film gains its depth by watching how few stick. With his loved ones to see him off, he debates, he regrets, he says good-bye, and, despite being a self-described "socialist hedonistic lecher," he is loved.
I said it's a fantasy. But it's no surprise then that The Barbarian Invasions, opening today at the Cla-Zel in Bowling Green, has been a blockbuster north of the border, with both French-speaking and English-speaking audiences. (The dialogue is mostly in French, though, with subtitles.) Arcand manipulates us with that dream of escaping an anonymous end and of being forgiven. But the conversation is good and so we don't mind. "I voted for Medicare, and I'll accept the consequences," Remy quips to his son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), Remy's idealistic opposite. Here's where it's serious.
One (Remy) is a fleshy, bald intellectual who devoted his life to hitting on women and protesting the establishment (even though he eventually became that establishment). The other (Sebastien) rejected everything his father stood for, moved to London, became an investment banker, and eventually rejected his father entirely. The title, "The Barbarian Invasions," is Remy's name for the 9/11 attacks. But it could also mean the malignant cells marching through his body. Or perhaps the youth that his son represents and its anti-intellectual bent. But Arcand isn't generation bashing. He finds both interesting and troubling.
"My son is an ambitious, puritanical capitalist," is how Remy sees their relationship. "I have always been a sensual socialist." But one of the jokes on him is how Sebastien buys Remy some comfort from the left-leaning programs he supported in his youth. He bribes unions and hospital administrators for better care; he hires the junkie daughter (Marie-Josee Croze) of one of his father's former lovers to give his father heroin for the pain. And finally he appeals to his father's old students and friends to visit him. I've said they forgive him: When the film shifts to the cabin by the lake, for long conversations and jokes and good food, that these friends and family and ex-lovers come to an understanding is probably more true. Myself, I envied them, and I sobbed like a 9-year-old girl.
If Remy sounds familiar, if you frequented the art house in the 1980s, you might have found him in Arcand's The Decline of the American Empire. Which always felt to me like a glib Canadian answer to The Big Chill. The Barbarian Invasions finds Remy and his academic circle 17 years later and a bit more stooped and sobered, but the years have removed some (but not all) of their self-infatuation and self-pity. They're more intriguing now. You needn't have seen the first film to appreciate the sequel; and in fact, I'd suggest skipping it. Arcand might let them off pretty easy in the end, but what they've learned pays the balance. A friend asks Remy: "Was there an 'ism' we didn't worship?" Remy reels back through his Marxism, Quebec separatism, and finds an answer: "Cretinism," he replies.
He tells a story of how he once praised the Cultural Revolution while talking to a visitor from China, and the visitor then explained how Mao and his Revolution imprisoned her father and ruined his family. Consider The Barbarian Invasions a counterculture daydream, with an additional counter thrown in for good measure.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: email@example.com
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