Sunday, March 4, 2012

The Barbarian Invasions (2003) [R] ****

A film review by James Berardinelli for

The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions barbares) is a follow-up (calling it a sequel seems too trite for such a sublime motion picture) to director Denys Arcand's 1986 international art-house hit, The Decline of the American Empire. Obviously, after the decline and fall, the barbarians arrive. (This seems to be stretching the metaphor too far, but whatever...) Where the earlier movie was about sex and vitality, The Barbarian Invasions deals with an equally universal topic: mortality. However, although the specter of death hovers over the entire film, it is neither a grim nor a depressing experience. Arcand has injected a great deal of wit into the movie, and it meshes perfectly with the anticipated pathos. And one could easily make the argument that The Barbarian Invasions is as much about life as it is about death, and, considering how intertwined the subjects are, it's hard to form a counter-argument.

The film opens with one of the protagonists from The Decline of the American Empire, Rémy (Rémy Girard), facing death. Before Rémy's days are done, his ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), persuades the dying man's estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), to make the trans-Atlantic journey from London to Montreal for a reconciliation. Their initial meetings are not promising, but a thaw begins with Sébastian recruiting many of Rémy's old friends to join him at his bedside. In addition, there is one newcomer - the deeply troubled Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), who is recruited by Stéphane to provide heroin used to dull Rémy's pain. However, as a drug addict, not only is she unreliable, but the potential for an overdose may mean that she has less time to live than Rémy.

The film starts out slowly, and, for a while, it looks like it might be just another movie about a fractured family coming to grips with its dysfunction. Indeed, the underlying material of The Barbarian Invasions could easily have been used to develop a soap opera, so Arcand must be given credit for detouring the storyline off the main track and onto a road that, while moving on a parallel trajectory, is less melodramatic and more intellectually satisfying. In the end, our tears are because we identify with these characters, not because the script has inelegantly manipulated our emotions.

The film contains scenes of offbeat comedy. For example, when Sébastian is trying to obtain heroin to ease his father's pain, he deduces that the most likely people to inform him where to find a dealer are the police. So he goes to the nearest police station, requests to see a narcotics officer, and asks his question. He is firmly told that the police are in the business of taking dealers off the street, not providing them with new customers. Arcand finds the right tone for this scene and others like it. It is not so fatuous that it becomes mocking, but the humor in the situation is evident.

The acting is uniformly good, although few of the actors will be known outside of Canadian circles. One exception is Marie-Josée Croze, who won the Cannes acting award for Best Actress. She was a standout in Ararat and has appeared in a number of movies obtaining U.S. theatrical release. In a way, however, having a cast of relative unknowns serves only to enhance The Barbarian Invasions' effectiveness, since there are no familiarity issues to get between the viewer and the characters.

This is a movie in which words and interaction take precedence over plot and action - a so-called character piece. It's a film in which friends gather to meditate upon history, philosophy, and their shared pasts. In many ways, Rémy's death is the kind of passing we might all wish for. He does not suffer for long, goes out on his own terms, and, at the end, is surrounded by his friends and loved ones. He is also given the opportunity to heal old wounds and speak his mind. Who could ask for anything more?

Labels: comedy, crime, drama, mystery, romance, tragedy

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