More noise than signal

The Barbarian Invasions

This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

Les Invasions barbares, as it’s known in it’s French Canadian native land arrives on our shores amongst a barrage of glowing reviews and plaudits aplenty, and a promo poster with lots of those little laurel symbols on them declaring it ‘best film’ and whatnot at lots of film festivals you’ve never heard of. Sadly, we weren’t too surprised when it turned out to be a rather unremarkable and familiar family drama that’s been put through the foreign language perceived goodness multiplier by critics.

Rémy (Rémy Girard) is dying. Bedridden in a dilapidated, hugely overcrowded hospital, chemotherapy has failed to make a dent in his cancerous nemesis. His divorced wife Louise (Dorothée Berryman) calls their millionaire son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) over from London, who brings along his auctioneer fiancé Gaëlle (Marina Hands). Sébastien and Rémy aren’t exactly close, Rémy having devoted his life to womanising and myriad radical left-wing causes, along with his day job as history professor. Rémy rejects Sébastien’s highly profitable risk-management job as an ultimately meaningless paper shuffling exercise, adding nothing worthwhile to society. Sébastien has rather more grounded reasons for his irritation, his father’s wandering affections all too commonly focused somewhere other than Louise or Rémy.

If nothing else, boatloads of cash lets you bribe your way to a more comfortable life, or in this case for Sébastien’s father. After a spot of union busting dollar exchanges Rémy is given a private room, and after some fiscal prompting some of Rémy’s students arrive for a morale and ego boosting visit. The ethics of such enterprises are left for the reader to evaluate. Further to Sébastien’s aims of making his father’s final days more comfortable he calls in a variety of his old friends.

The trouble with character pieces such as this is that it rather undermines the whole affair when the supporting characters have little to do other than bounce around in a rather shallow stereotypes. Witness the two gay characters who flounce around making catty asides. Marvel at how quickly the bitterness both Sébastien and Louise have vanishes into the ether at Rémy’s apparently charming reparteé. Wonder at why two of his mistresses were brought into the film at all apart from making up numbers around a table. Even Gaëlle, who from a storyline perspective is utterly superfluous has more to do, albeit an utterly pointless aside as she values some surplus Church statues and baubles. There is perhaps some message somewhere in the scene, although one utterly unrelated to the bulk of the film.

Still, much of the film is utterly unrelated to reality anyway. Canada has one of the more highly regarded health care systems in the world, although writer/director Denys Arcand presents it as barely adequate by third world standards. After Sébastien is told that his father’s painkillers are no longer up to the task, he’s prompted to scour the streets for a supply of heroin. While this is eventually procured by his childhood friend and full time junkie Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), it’s almost certainly available in a far safer and purer form through the proper medical channels. Incidentally, for the purposes of this film the effects of heroin are limited purely to negating the pain caused by chemotherapy and cancer, enabling Rémy to expound his theories and sit outside at his friend’s lakeside house without nasty things like reality getting in the way of the story.

Nothing technically wrong with that kind of manipulation, I suppose, were Rémy saying or doing anything particularly interesting or that we haven’t seen before umpteen times. The fact that it’s now presented in a different language doesn’t make it fresh and exciting by itself. Where it seeks to differentiate itself from the generation gap death bed coming to terms affairs most recently exemplified by Burton’s whimsical Big Fish is not so much related to Sébastien, but to Rémy’s potted observations on changing culture over his years.

The Barbarian Invasion that the title refers to is used (to my recollection) twice, firstly in it’s attention grabbing, 9/11 footage that may be familiar from its trailers, a background TV set declaring it the first time a foreign force struck at the heart of America. The images disappear back into the blue as quickly as it appeared, another unconnected strand in a film full of them. The term is later used referring to idiots, or whatever term Rémy so superciliously uses to describe common people. His indignation that society is in his view growing dumber by the second is only slightly undermined by his occupation as a teacher. Perhaps you’ve not being doing your job properly, my old bald dead friend?

Much of the film is taken up with Rémy and his friends whining about the various small ways in which they have wasted various small portions of their lives, their intellectual pursuits making little impact in the real world. Elegantly phrased and refined whining no doubt, and as such a more interesting way to whine. Still, when the dust settles for all the pontification Arcand’s script provides the messages remain the same trite homilies that we didn’t need a film to point out in the first place; life is fleeting, live it to the fullest, death is certain. If any of this comes as news I will masticate my trilby.

For all it’s meandering obvious observations The Barbarian Invasions is a relatively enjoyable slice of cinema, although one that doesn’t rise above mediocre for very long or for very often. No doubt exiled French Canadians will rejoice in a slice of their culture being granted a worldwide cinematic audience, but even they ought to realise it’s hardly a unique slice that Denys Arcand has chosen to serve up.