Judge Paul Corupe says this sequel to The Decline of the American Empire will be best enjoyed by Canadians, eh.
"If we can't decipher the past, how can we know the future?"
Denys Arcand's fin de siècle baby boomer tale is certainly not for all tastes; a bittersweet French Canadian comedy about family and friends, life and death. Garnering an Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2003, The Barbarian Invasions is a rough road that carries the implications of the complete collapse of society as we know it.
Facts of the Case
Rémy is an ex-university professor whose lust for life—or more accurately, women—has alternately endeared him to his friends and estranged him from his family. Now divorced, but just as stubborn as ever, Rémy discovers he is dying of terminal cancer. His son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a millionaire risk management expert, comes home to make amends and buy a few final days of comfort for his father. He arranges a private suite in an unused medical wing, and asks all of Rémy's old friends and family members, including his mistresses and his ex-wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman), to stop by. The visitors sit bedside to drink wine and discuss their changing lives, and the still exuberant Rémy loves every minute of it, even having some opportunity to reconcile with his son and Louise.
As Rémy's condition deteriorates, Sébastien learns heroin is more powerful than the hospital-supplied morphine. He has the daughter of one of his father's old girlfriends, an addict, administer the drug. But soon that's not enough, and Sébastien arranges to take his father and the others back to Rémy's favorite spot—a cottage by the lake—where the conversation turns nostalgic and cheerfully regretful.
Sequels to Canadian films are a fairly uncommon occurrence, especially when they don't involve teenage werewolves. However, The Barbarian Invasions is a follow-up to acclaimed Quebec director Denys Arcand's best known work, 1986's The Decline of the American Empire, in which Rémy and his friends, and Louise and her friends, engage in separate discussions about sex, politics, and philandering. The two groups meet for dinner at the lake, where Rémy's infidelity is gradually revealed to his upset wife.
As a condemnation of the decadence of the 1980s, The Decline of the American Empire proved extremely popular, and has become one of the most internationally-recognized Canadian films. Catching up with his original characters 17 years later, The Barbarian Invasions is something of a slam-dunk for Arcand's hometown fans. Bringing back a slightly older Rémy to hold court with his sex-obsessed brethren is the perfect closure for Canadian audiences who were entranced with the egotistical characters when they first appeared on Quebec screens almost two decades ago.
If The Decline of the American Empire was about callous self-indulgence, then The Barbarian Invasions is something of an apology for the mistakes of the past. With controversial 9/11 footage, Rémy's endless rants about holocausts both past and present and a hefty subplot of Sébastien's securing of heroin with the unofficial help of thee police force, Arcand seems to be suggesting that not only did the proposed social revolutions of the '60s fail, but that they were doomed to fail. The fallen empire is regrettably long past rebuilding; perhaps just as sick as Rémy. It's still a fiercely liberal film, but there's a quiet sense of remorse that weighs heavily on the proceedings.
It's easy to dismiss The Barbarian Invasions as an egotistical wank, because it often is—and that's really the point. The aged baby boomers are self-centered, often unlikable characters, perpetually engaged in conversations about sex and their social lives. Like their philosophies, these are imperfect characters, and Arcand is clearly playing off this to instill a sense of regret in the film. Although Rémy and his friends aren't as pitiless here as in The Decline of the American Empire, many still won't find these characters as endearing as the film makes them out to be. In fact, those closer to Sébastien's age may have outright contempt for the flippant attitudes of Rémy's clique.
This is a film really meant for a French Canadian audience of baby boomers that loved The Decline of the American Empire. Those that don't fall into that rather restrictive demographic will find that The Barbarian Invasions is a well-shot, occasionally touching film, but will probably wonder what all the fuss is about.
Offered in the theatrical ratio of 1.85:1 (not 2.35:1, as claimed on the back of the box), the anamorphic transfer is quite attractive. Arcand's palette isn't much to look at, favoring sickly yellows for the hospital which only gradually become warmer, but you really couldn't ask for a better picture than what you get on this DVD, which features rich colors, deep blacks, and no edge enhancement. Sound is also quite excellent. As an almost entirely dialogue-driven film, there's very little music, but the soundtrack is still engulfing, with good use of atmospheric sound effects on the surround channels. It's also worth noting that Miramax's release is a good 15 minutes shorter than the Canadian theatrical and DVD versions.
Only one extra has been included, but it will definitely please fans of the film. Originally broadcast on French Canadian TV as a promotional piece, "Inside The Barbarian Invasions" is an hour-long program that has the stars of the film leisurely discussing Arcand's intentions and themes over dinner and wine. Once you get past the extremely pretentious narrator of the piece, there are some good moments here. It's a format that really works much better than traditional interviews, and I'd love to see this idea used on future DVDs.
This is a good film and a well-made film, but not a great one. Your chances of really connecting with The Barbarian Invasions depends wholly on your age, your station in life, and if you saw the Arcand's first film. Nowhere near as heart-warming as the advertising copy makes it out to be, this probably won't find much of an audience past Canadian film fans and adventurous art house aficionados. But I have a feeling that Denys Arcand wouldn't want it any other way.
Not guilty on all counts except for one-assault with a deadly ego.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
• Inside "The Barbarian Invasions"
Review content copyright © 2004 Paul Corupe; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.