Laura Clifford Robin CliffordWhen Montreal college professor Rémy (Rémy Girard, "The Decline of the American Empire") is hospitalized with a fatal prognosis, his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman, "The Decline of the American Empire") pleads with their son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) to come over from London. Sébastien and his wife Gaëlle (Marina Hands) arrive and despite his father's caustic reception, Sébastien is soon orchestrating a special send off, including gathering his father's friends and mistresses to his bedside, in Writer/director Denys Arcand's ("Stardom," "The Decline of the American Empire") followup to "The Decline of the American Empire," "The Barbarian Invasions."
This 2003 Cannes winner (best screenplay and best actress for Marie-Josée Croze, "Ararat") is both the tale of a father and son's rediscovery and the portrait of a man surveying his broad, lusty life looking for meaning. The film sustains an emotional build that is undercut by cutesy directorial choices in the film's last act.
We're given a strong dose of Rémy right away when his wife tells a nurse that she threw him out fifteen years prior and he's been humping coeds ever since. Rémy grouses about his son's never having read a book, calling him a video-game player (he's actually a very successful investment banker) and it's clear we have a battle between culture and commerce.
The warmup between father and son begins when Sébastien accompanies Rémy across the border to a hospital for tests ('Hallelujah' they tartly reply when a nurse welcomes them to the U.S.). Sébastien finds a hospice in the States, but his father refuses to leave because 'I'm not going to the States to be murdered by rabid Mohammedans.' A nurse, Carole (Micheline Lanctôt, "The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz"), gives Rémy a new look at his son and himself when he must compare his own handling of his father's demise to what Sébastien has done.
Sébastien visits a hospital administrator (who amusingly dishes out programmed doublespeak, another barb at national health care) and declares that 'money is no object' in trying to procure a private room for his father in the overcrowded hospital. After a little bit of bribery, Rémy's ensconced on his own floor where the visitors Sébastien's gathered prepare meals and enjoy cocktail hour! Sébastien even goes so far as to ask a cop where to procure heroin to ease the old man's pain. When the cop doesn't oblige, he asks Diane (Louise Portal, "The Decline of the American Empire"), his dad's ex-mistress who has a junkie daughter Nathalie (Croze), and the young girl is brought back to life herself by the complex relationship she develops with father and son. Sébastien's laptop is the portal to his sister Sylvaine (Isabelle Blais, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind"), who sends moving video messages via a satellite link from a boat in the Pacific (the sibling's electronic ties to their fast-paced worlds are subtly contrasted against their father's extensive library of paper books and the cushy academic lives of his generation). The point of Gaëlle's visit to assess the value of a warehouse full of Catholic artifacts, however, is less clearly stated.
When the group repairs to the lake cottage of old friend Pierre (Pierre Curzi, "The Decline of the American Empire"), though, Arcand can't resist lining them up to spout pseudo-intellectual soundbites on the 'isms' of their lives which the camera captures like a singalong's bouncing ball. Still, Rémy's admitted Cretinism when he recalls telling a young victim of the Chinese Cultural Revolution how wonderful it was is a touching admission. Better yet is his reminisce on the glories of the thighs of religious actress Inés Orsini, serially replaced by images of Francoise Hardy, Julie Christie and Chris Evert until old age brought dreams of the Caribbean. 9/11 is used to further the barbarian invasion theme which runs throughout the film on multiple levels, a device that may be met with shock in the U.S. A TV commentator is heard to say 'What's important is that they struck at the heart of the empire,' a metaphor for the principals' emotions.
Arcand has created a sentimental homage to a big, broad life that rarely turns mawkish. His cast, particularly Rémy Girard, Rousseau, Croze and Lanctôt, are a good ensemble. Visually the film is pedestrian, its emphasis on dialogue. Original music by Pierre Aviat owes a debt to Philip Glass.
Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) is a successful investment counselor living large in London. One day, he gets a plaintive phone call from his mother telling him that his long estranged father, Remy (Remy Girard), is dying of cancer. She begs her son to come home and he, reluctantly, agrees. But, as father and son get to know each other for the first time, the visit turns into much more than duty in Denys Arcand’s “Barbarian Invasion.”
Director/scribe Arcand helms an odd ensemble pic that tries to do many things but doesn’t quite succeed with any of them. “Barbarian Invasions” comments on the day, September 11, 2001, when the civilized world would no longer fight the invaders at the gate. The barbarian is among us, Arcand tells. This cautionary statement is also coupled with an ironic satire about the Canadian/Quebecois public health care system with its crowded conditions, shoddy care and sub-human treatment of patients. Arcand points an accusatory finger at the corruption of the hospital administrators and union leadership that can but won’t make things happen – except when an ill-gotten buck (or, “loony” in this case) can be had. Then, there is the warm, melancholy comic drama about a son returning home to care for the man who failed to care for him when he was a child and discovers, at last, love for his father. Basically, there is too much going on here.
There are some pluses to “Barbarian Invasion,” though, with a gruffly touching performance as the family patriarch by Remy Girard. The dying Remy comes across as a selfish, bitter man when Sebastien first arrives. There is obvious friction between father and son stemming from Remy’s abandonment of his family and his philandering ways. Sebastien is there, the son insists, for the sake of his mother and agrees to her request that he find his father’s old friends and lovers and that he make Remy as comfortable as possible. As the father/son portion of “Barbarian Invasion” plays, Remy’s crustiness softens as he gets to know his son. Sebastien, too, learns about the real man through the conversations of the friends and former lovers who come to bid their old comrade adieu.
The story changes gears when Arcand begins his expose of corruption in the health care system as Sebastien tosses money around to hospital administrators and union officials like it is water (so much so that I kept wondering what Sebastien’s line of work really is). It seems that the only way to get good health care in Canada, or at least Quebec, is by bribery. Bureaucrats are bad in “Barbarian Invasion” but the real health care providers, represented by nurses Carole (Micheline Lanctot) and Suzanne (Markita Boies), are show with compassion and sympathy. Also of note is Marie Josee-Croze as Nathalie, Sebastien’s beautiful junkie cousin he uses to score Remy’s doctor recommended heroin supply and helps him partake to ease the pain of his cancer. Unfortunately, Stephane Rousseau doesn’t lend anything to his character Sebastien.
If I had seen “Barbarian Invasions” a couple of years ago, after my own father’s passing, I would have been a quivering mass of jelly. As it is, the mounting emotions of loss of father/family had me all choked up anyway.
Denys Arcand tries to keep too many balls in the air as he juggles the multiplicity of stories and social statements. I give it a B-
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