By: Nadia Brophy
With the imminence of death comes a reflection on life, love, politics and sex in Denys Arcand’s 2003 French-language drama The Barbarian Invasions.
Arcand takes viewers on a trip through the cynical mind of terminally ill history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard) as he battles with the bitter-sweet reminiscence of a life of adultery that damaged his relationship with his son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau). Simultaneously, the film pays homage to its comedy prequel The Decline of the American Empire which follows the lives of young Rémy and his intellectual group of close friends as they partake in pensive conversations about sex and politics. The group regathers years later to celebrate the life of their friend in his final days and re-engage in their well-loved discussion.
From the beginning of the film, we are immersed in the complicated relationship between Rémy and Sébastien as they engage in several tense arguments about Sébastien’s career. Rémy expresses distaste over his son’s choice to pursue the construction of his own business over a good education, and Sébastien replies with snide comments about how his father’s preoccupation with mistresses prevented him from truly understanding his son’s choices.
We don’t begin to see why the two characters struggle to comprehend one another’s life choices until Rémy’s ex-wife, Sébastien’s mother, tells her son a story of his father’s dedication to helping him succeed academically throughout his childhood.
From that moment on, Sébastien makes the out-of-character decision to spend what seems like his every-waking moment providing his father with luxuries during his stay in hospital. The film spends so much time revealing Sébastien’s dislike for his father through several indications that he would rather be taking business calls than holding his hand by his bedside. This sudden turn of character, which otherwise could have been considered a climatic point of the film, appeared as nothing but a mechanism to speed up the plot.
But I suppose it does the trick, because it is at this point that Sébastien invites the group from The Decline of the American Empire to visit his father, which swiftly changes the film’s focus from exhaustive father-son discourse to light-hearted interactions between old friends.
And there is something particularly hilarious about watching the witty middle-aged ensemble engage in predominantly sex-based dialogue. The sex-intrigued characters were written in light of the 1980 Quebec referendum, a time in which Arcand recalls a societal change in focus from political collectivity to the needs and pleasures of individuals.
It is in these interactions between characters that actor Rémy Girard’s performance flourishes most, as he delivers emotional recounts of his character’s past endeavours like they were his very own. The film expertly includes quick-cut scenes of the thoughts occupying Rémy’s head, whether it be the moments he reminisces on women he once loved, his family members or personal experiences, the audience is taken on a visual trip through the mind of a man reflecting on the life he lived. I was convinced that his character truly loved this life too much to leave it.
Girard’s co-stars effectively matched his convincing emotions throughout the film, coming together as if in true friendship to honour the same dynamic exhibited in The Decline of the American Empire.
Though for the most part a successfully executed concept, watching the group of friends engage in long conversations, often consisting of what seemed like inside jokes, can sometimes work against audience engagement. I’d be hard-pressed to say that watching the prequel to better understand the characters and their conversational cues wouldn’t help in interpreting the sequel.
Despite the fact that The Barbarian Invasions may not be remembered for particularly stunning visuals or an alluring score, it remains in your memory as an immersive celebration of life, love and forgiveness fueled by its dynamic characters and clever dialogue.
This piece was edited by Brent Smyth.