The Barbarian Invasions

Dec 24, 2003 at 12:00 am

French-Canadian writer/director Deny Arcand’s sequel to his The Decline of the American Empire (1986) centers on the slow death of one of the film’s coterie of cheerfully pedantic intellectuals. Remy (Remy Girard), a once-randy history professor, has fallen from his ivory tower into the clutches of an overcrowded Montreal hospital, where he has to take his medicine along with the rest of the barbarians. Remy is a longtime socialist and when his estranged, ultra-capitalist (and millionaire) son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) offers to secure him a private room, he’s reluctant to accept. But suffering generally prevails over abstract principle and he soon accepts his son’s largesse, which includes a steady supply of heroin to ease his excruciating pain.

Although the film has its comic moments, the mood is generally autumnal. As death comes nearer, Remy more keenly feels that his life hasn’t turned out the way he had hoped. His friends rally around his sick bed, putting a brave face on their mutual sadness at seeing their old comrade at the end of his run, with its reminder of their own mortality. There’s a subplot involving the relationship between Sebastien, who’s happily married, and the daughter of one of Remy’s friends, who’s supplying the heroin, that serves to deepen the mood of thwarted expectations.

The film’s one weak aspect is the artificiality of some of Arcand’s dialogue — the repartee between the old friends often sounds scripted (which, of course, it is, but we shouldn’t be so aware). Their conversations can be a bit too aphoristic, even for an articulate bunch like this, and the attempts at humor can be pretty lame. All somebody has to do is mention “blow jobs” for the others to chime in with a half dozen limp puns on the term. Maybe something’s being lost in the translation, but the mix of overbearing erudition and forced humor seems unnatural in this very naturalistic setting.

Still, the film is effectively moving when the crunch comes for Remy. And if his final moments seem like a fantasy of what a good death would be like, surrounded by friends and loved ones, all of whom know just the right thing to say, it’s a fantasy one can indulge in with a minimum of sheepishness. Facing the worst, it seems like the least one could wish for.


In French, with subtitles. Showing at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-263-2111 for more information.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].