Neil Young’s Film Lounge – The Barbarian Invasions



Les invasions barbares aka Invasion of the Barbarians : Canada (Can/Fr) 2003 : Denys ARCAND : 99 mins (domestic version 111 mins)

The Canadian entry for this years foreign-language Oscar (Arcand being Quebecois), The Barbarian Invasions is the kind of intelligent, mature, well-made, tragedy-tinged comedy that might just go down a storm well with the Academy selection panel. If, that is, they don’t mind that the facts that (a) euthanasia is endorsed (and practiced), (b) heroin is endorsed (and used) as a very effective painkiller, (c) its all very left-of-centre and at times explicitly anti-Bushist, (d) palm-greasing corruption goes unpunished, (e) its all talk talk talk from beginning to end, nearly all of which is left-of-centre, a fair amount explicitly anti-Bushish and (f) its a sort-of-sequel to Arcands 1986 foreign-language nominee, The Decline of the American Empire – which they may or may not have seen, and which some may confuse with Penelope Spheeris 1980s documentaries The Decline of Western Civilization.

The Cannes jurors obviously had no such qualms, naming Invasions as one of only three prize-worthy movies at this years Competition (alongside Elephant and Distant): Arcand won best screenplay, and Marie-Josee Croze won best actress. The latter seems a slightly perverse decision: not because Croze isn’t good (shes fine), but because hers is emphatically a relatively minor supporting role in a large ensemble clustering around the central figure of Remy (Remy Girard), a history professor whose friends and family rally round when he’s diagnosed with a terminal illness. The jury, bombarded with Miramaxs Dogville hype and keen to tweak the nose of Von Trier, were clearly looking for an ABN candidate: Anyone But Nicole.

Leaving aside the Croze-Kidman politicking, few could have cavilled at Arcands script honour. He may not be any particular visual stylist, and at times relies on slightly manipulative soundtrack muzak (score by Pierre Aviat). But he crafted an ambitious but accessible screenplay, and orchestrated an entirely up for it group of actors, resulting in a film that simultaneously ballsy and wistful, stimulating, funny and surprisingly moving: Squarely and refreshingly aimed at adult even perhaps mature audiences, it seems certain to rack up nice business in college towns and cities worldwide.

This isn’t for everyone, of course it is, of course, as one unimpressed internet reviewer snarled, about bourgeois, for bourgeois, by bourgeois. And the under-30s may perhaps be left cold – but they’re more than adequately catered for elsewhere. Its true that the more similarities the viewer has to the characters, the more they’ll get out of the movie you don’t have to be a sixtyish, left-leaning, anti-clerical, French-Canadian intellectual to fully appreciate The Barbarian Invasions, but it’ll certainly help if you fall into one or two of those categories.

While Decline focussed almost exclusively on Remy and his immediate circle, Invasions include the next generation: joining Remys ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) and various colleagues and/or lovers trading epigrams and bons mots at his bedside are his rich capitalist son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) and Stephanes fiancee Gaelle (Marina Hands). And when Remy is moved from hospital to a serene lakeside retreat for his final days, the group are joined by Sebastians old friend Nathalie (Croze), whose knowledge of narcotics proves crucial in easing Remy towards oblivion

Not that Remy goes gently: in a terrific performance from Girard, the old lecher is acerbic and erudite to the last, despairing the philistinism of youth while simultaneously reaping the benefits of their practicality – Sebastien greases various palms to obtain his dad more comfortable hospital surroundings, and Nathalie deploys a different kind of expertise to alleviate his painful symptoms. Such touches are typical of Arcands generous, even-handed approach he scathingly presents the Canadian Catholic church as generally ineffectual and moribund, but then show us a nun, Sister Constance (Johanne Marie Tremblay), who’s just about the only caring and competent person to be found anywhere in the otherwise farcically incompetent Montreal General Hospital.

Remy and company realise that their kind of 1968 radicalism is now just another page in the history books, superseded by the cataclysmic upheavals of September 11th 2001 which, Remy believes, herald the invasions referred to in the sardonic title. Theyre all eloquently dismayed at how things have turned out, as represented by the socialised, impractical, crumbling Canadian NHS. But, like their Spanish equivalents in Achero Manas November, they cling proudly to the flames of idealism even in what must seem the darkest of dark times.

13th November, 2003
(seen 29th October : Odeon West End, London London Film Festival)

click here for a full list of films covered at the 2003 London Film Festival

click here for the full list of films entered for the 2003-4 Foreign-Language Oscar

by Neil Young