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I was lucky enough to attend a screening of Barbarian Invasions where writer/ director Denys Arcand was present. His looks reminded me of a younger John Hurt and his demeanor was that of a wise college professor. His film is a quiet work of art that will continue to sneak into your thoughts in the days after you see it.
There are so many aspects of Barbarian Invasions that might wrongfully scare people away from seeing it. First of all, the title, "Barbarian Invasions." It brings to mind a mob of people dressed in animal skins destroying a city, and the film couldn't be more different. Barbarian Invasions has more in common with a Michael Winterbottom film than a Michael Bay one.
Then there's the subject matter of the film: a dying man brings together his friends, family and former lovers for one last goodbye. It sounds depressing, but I assure you this film is full of lightness and humor. The film also addresses problems with Canada's universal health care system, the practice of assisted suicide, and illegal drug use by the chronically ill. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, it's honestly not "that kind of film." All of these complicated issues are addressed as though the storyteller is a good friend and you're just sitting around having an open-minded discussion about current events. All of the characters are likeable and charming and when the film ends you'll wish you could spent more time with them.
When, during a Q & A, someone from the audience asked if Denys considered himself an "overtly political filmmaker," Arcand responded, "Film isn't effective for a political message. If you want to make a political statement you become a politician."
He continued by saying, "You make films because you're passionate about things. You make a film to express something, not just for entertainment. You make a film about who you are...[the characters in the film] are my friends. They look like my friends, they talk like my friends."
The story begins when half a dozen characters from Arcand's 1986 film Decline of the American Empire meet in Montreal to pay their respects to a Rémy, a former college professor. The group includes Rémy's wife, his former mistresses, and his estranged son. Everyone gets along famously except for the son, Sebastién. Sebastién is perceived by the rest of the group as a vapid, boring capitalist; but he does whatever he can to ease his father's suffering. Director Denys Arcand described the father and son's relationship thusly:
"Rémy has lived books and ideology all his life. His son doesn't even know what an ideology is. He just plays with computers and video games all day. To Rémy, his son is the barbarian."
Ultimately, it is the "barbarian" who provides Rémy with the most comfort. Sebastién arranges for his father to have a private room, and provides him with heroin to ease his pain. Not a user himself, Sebastién introduces his father to Nathalie, a young and beautiful junkie. It is the discussions between Rémy and Nathalie that are the most profound.
Arcand commented, "Nathalie is the only one who really understands [Rémy] because she deals with the threat of death everyday. He teaches her to live and she teaches him to die."
As the film progresses, Rémy becomes more introspective about his life, but the film never lag as a result. In one hilarious sequence, Rémy reminisces about all the women he's been with, including imaginary relationships with several actresses from film and television.
Barbarian Invasions is simply a well-crafted film full of likeable characters with intelligent and meaningful things to say. It's one of the best foreign films I've seen this year and it speaks to the audience as a whole as opposed to just the "target demographic." If you enjoy thoughtful filmmaking such as the films by Eric Rohmer, John Sayles or Mike Leigh, I highly recommend Barbarian Invasions.
-Megan A. Denny