Barbarian Invasions, The

(Les Invasions Barbares)
dir: Denys Arcand
[img_assist|nid=994|title=Bloody barbarians and their barbaric ways|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=450|height=338]
Death is the one universal human experience. I know people usually use
the combination phrase "death and taxes", but I know plenty of people
who have never paid a cent of tax in their entire lives. That includes
both social security slackers and the kind of wealthy fuckers that
could buy and sell your cheap arse. All the same, I can be sure that
they, like everyone else, one day will die. Unless they pay someone
else to do it for them. That fact is something we, depending on our
age and where we are in life, either try to desperately ignore or

Some people might have the feeling that they've achieved much
in their lives, so that before they buy the farm at least they'll be
able to say that they lived. Other people have religion, have faith
that the death of our mortal forms is not the end, that there is the
after life or reincarnation to consider, so how they have lived their
lives and what they expect in the sweet hereafter is either a comfort
to them or something to be dreaded. Others think that there is nothing
out there except oblivion, and thus death is something from which
little comfort can be drawn except the possibility of an end to pain.
And nevermore accidentally listening to Celine Dion songs ever again.

It is safe to say that no-one lives for too long without being touched
in some way by death. Whether lucky or unlucky, eventually either
people we care about die or we ourselves kick the bucket in some
unspectacular way. It's probably something of a cliché to even mention
it, but I'm pretty sure that the older we get, the more our sense of
our own mortality grows. Clearly, mortality and the crappy state of
the Canadian public health care system played a large part in the
thinking of director / writer Denys Arcand, the man responsible for
this wonderful film. But even more than the bony hand of Death
reaching out to claim each and every one of us, it seems that the idea
of reconciling ourselves with the life that we have led and accepting
death on our own terms is of greater interest to him, as represented
in this film.

Stories like this are susceptible to schmaltz, to cheese, to crappy
manipulative trash that generally is either relegated to movie of the
week status or dismissed as chick flick fodder. That's not the path of
least resistance taken here. Sure there are those elements requiring a
dying father and an estranged son to reconcile before he goes off into
the great beyond, but it's done in a touching, believably human way.
The most important reconciliation is more so between our main
character Remy and his own life.

Remy (Remy Girard) is dying of cancer. He is trapped in an
under-resourced hospital which is falling apart and looks truly
crappy, replete with hundreds of people stacked two deep in the
hallways and exposed electrical cabling everywhere. He can't afford
better health care, and in one of the film's funniest lines, he
exclaims that since he voted for state run Medicare, he'll take the
consequences. He is not likely to be miraculously healed at any point,
so what he needs is palliative care, the kind that neither he nor
Canada can afford to give him.

His ex-wife of long ago contacts their son Sebastien (Stephane
Rousseau) in London, telling him that his father is ill. Despite the
fact that he clearly hates his father, Sebastien and his soon to be
wife Gaelle (Marina Hands) make the long trek in a company jet. See,
Sebastien is a rampant capitalist who hates his father for having been
a womaniser and for tearing their family apart. They don't get along
well at all, and it's probably a combination of the difference in
their worldviews and the unchangeable past that exists there between
them like an open wound. Sebastien endeavours, all the same, to
alleviate his father's circumstances. The manner in which this is
achieved is quite involved, quite scathing against the Canadian health
care system, and quite funny. He has to bribe multiple people, from
the hospital administrator to the corrupt union officials that profit
from the hospital's anarchic state. See, Sebastien has only one way of
dealing with difficulties in this world, and he's very good at it. He
throws money at every problem that arises, and issues that would
otherwise be Gordian knots unravel easy as anything thanks to his deep
pockets and smooth manner.

It's hard not to appreciate the irony of this. Remy himself is an old
guard leftie, in fact he refers to his son as a puritanical
capitalist, whilst he himself was a sensual socialist. As a history
professor and thus a student of human misery, he sees the study of
human history as being the appreciation of atrocity after atrocity
constituting the major events that link us all with the past. He even
refers to the idealistic days of his youth where he still believed in
the concepts of Marxist utopias and the rise of the proletariat before
growing disillusioned with these concepts through the various
revelations of Communist atrocities in China and the USSR. And the
final insult is that all his beliefs had been reduced to empty
platitudes, where his only redemption comes from cold hard cash served
up by the son he can't stand who represents everything he taught
himself to hate. Connecting in with the title, at one point he refers
to his son as the ‘barbarian prince', leader of the hordes that have
rendered Canada and his modern life unrecognisable.

This all links in with Arcand's earlier film from about twenty years
ago, The Decline of the American Empire. Not only that, but many of
the characters come from that earlier story, played by the same
actors. This gives the film an even more touching aspect in that the
people playing Remy's friends, reunited by his pending death, are
genuinely people reunited again to play their old roles. None of them
have to do any heavy lifting, they come across in a beautifully
unaffected manner. Well, at least in a manner that would probably seem
unaffected to people from Quebec, one presumes. I mean, I appreciated
it, but to me it seems a bit weird watching a story where old friends
get together in someone's hospital room, cook up some good Italian
food and get smashed on quality wine whilst wittily dissecting both
their friend's path to the grave and their respective histories. In a
similar situation I could potentially imagine some of my friends
getting together and downing cheap whisky whilst discussing porn and
reality television as I lay dying: I guess that's not the action
packed cinema that people are hoping for. It's probably better that
Denys went with his story and not mine.

The personal and the political are interlaced, but not to a level that
makes you want to vomit in disgust. Though it mentions the events of
September Eleven, and connects that into some fairly broad statements
in the changes going on in Canadian society and the world in general,
so much of what the characters discuss in throwaway comments seems
just like what people in the Western world would be saying,
interspersed with the obvious stuff about "Oh yeah, you're dying".
It's an incredibly witty script, it's a joy to hear and the cast
obviously loved doing it. They're all veterans of the stage and screen
(in Canada, which is like saying you're the toughest body builder in a
village of pygmies), and it seems as if the mostly older cast have a
ball playing their respective parts.

The younger people have a different set of tasks ahead of them. To
them Remy is preparing to ‘leave' this world and all its concerns.
He's fought his battles, made tonnes of mistakes, seen the angels in
the architecture and the devil in the details, and though he believes
he figured out what was really "going on" in the world, it's brought
him no closer to any kind of peace. None of his friends, similarly
intellectuals and academics, have had all their questions and
complexities answered by their experiences. In most cases they are
content in their domesticity, in their carnality or in their solitude.
At one point a notorious ex-lover of Remy's confesses that the
greatest satisfaction she now gets out of life comes from watching the
big screen tv at the foot of her bed. Despite the obvious differences
between them, they seem happy to be all together again, though not
obviously happy about the reason.

Though clearly no-one really wants to see Remy go, no-one wants to see
him in pain either. This leads to the funniest of situations I can
consider where Remy's son decides he needs to take matters in his own
hands to alleviate his father's pain, since the health system won't
provide any help, the cheap bastards. Seb decides he needs to score
some high quality heroin, but not knowing Montreal at all, and being a
total square, he decides that the people that would best be able to
direct him to the smack dealers would be the cops. It sounds awfully
naïve, but he's not that clueless. It's pretty hilarious from my point
of view, especially to see the look of incredulity on the face of the

Eventually, a friend of Remy's whose daughter is regrettably a smackie
puts him on the right track. Nathalie (Marie Josee Croze), though
young, is clearly begging for death, and seeks it through heroin,
hoping for an overdose to take her out. She helps out Remy for the
free smack, and eventually gets him hooked terribly on the stuff. It's
not like anyone is going to care if a guy who's gravebound already
develops a nasty habit. Quite amusing (for me) is that she teaches him
how to take it by getting him to chase the dragon, which means burning
the stuff on foil and inhaling it through a makeshift tube. In the
subtitles, they fuck up the translation when she's explaining this to
him, and it comes through as ‘riding the dragon', which would, if
that's what she said, possibly make her the least cool drug addict in
all of Quebec. Also amusing for me is just to hear the (attempted)
term ‘chase the dragon', since it is the title of one of the greatest
songs in Australian rock history, Chase the Dragon by the Beasts of
Bourbon. If you doubt me you deserve to go to a hell where it's
nothing but light beer being served and nothing but the ‘winners' from
Australian Idol on the jukebox.

Of course drugs are bad, mmkay? In case anyone thought I was endorsing
or approving their existence, I am totally against their purchase and
use. I mean, after all, they're so bloody expensive. Remy and Nathalie
make a strange pair, in that he would give his left nut to be able to
live, and she hates life to such an extent that she envies him. They
look at each other from completely alternate ends of life's spectrum.
True to junkie form she ends up being profoundly undependable, and
letting everyone down initially. Who'd have thunk it, honestly? I mean
junkies are usually so responsible, aren't they? But she comes through
literally at the end, performing a task no-one else had the ball or
the ovaries to do. She's an interesting character, but in all honesty
I've seen more believable drug addicts on Beverly Hills 90210. She is
way too clean and wholesome. Her clothes didn't even look vaguely
slept in, let alone hardened with bodily effluvia. Effluvia, such an
evocative term. Of course there are plenty of drug addicts that can
keep the personal hygiene thing together, at least initially. Hi Mum,
thanks for dropping by. But any of them that put any effort into it
soon end up smelling like the walking dead that they are. So, yeah,
she's okay, but not very believable. We also never get to understand
how or why she becomes an addict in the first place, but then again
it's not her story.

Remy rants and raves during these times with anyone in earshot,
sometimes the rants are poignant and at other times glib. He argues
theology with a Catholic nun, from whom he can draw no comfort from a
spiritual point of view, yet at the same time their conversations
(which amount to him screaming about humanity's inhumanity to, um,
humanity and her whispering simplistic little Christian aphorisms)
bring him some meaning. His dissatisfaction during conversations
recalling the past with others stems from his inability to be
satisfied with what little he's achieved during his life in his
opinion. He has wonderful memories, most of them having to do with
sensuality, and his lust for life, but as with the nature of all these
kinds of experience: it can never be entirely satisfied.

By genetics, by the will of Zod or whatever you want to call it, we
are programmed to desire certain sensations. By their very nature,
until our bodies start breaking down, these desires cannot be
permanently satisfied. No one singular fuck, no matter how amazing,
can cure us of the desire for more sex down the track when the scars
have healed and we can walk straight again. For drinkers, even the
greatest bender never stops you from ever wanting to drink again, even
if parts of your internal anatomy need replacement afterwards or the
courts get involved. Seeing as some of these desires take up so much
of our thinking, and are essentially unsatisfiable, it's
understandable that someone might get to the end of their life and
think "I should have fucked more fine women / men, should have drunk
more fine wine instead of the cheap cask stuff, should have sky dived,
scuba dived, pussy dived, like I always planned. Should have taken
more holidays, seen the world, done more of the important stuff rather
than spent so much time on the goddamn couch. Left a legacy, done
something to be remembered for, made more friends, been closer to my
family, written an autobiog , punched that prick in the face, kissed
that girl on the train, snorted cocaine off the butt crack of a
Brazilian prostitute, you know, all the wholesome experiences
available in life's rich tapestry".

Remy expresses these sentiments exactly in all their complexity in the
film because it's understandable that many of us might feel that when
reaching vainly for the finish line. Maybe we won't be happy with the
amount of experiences we had, maybe we'll wish that we'd had more of
some and less of others. But, ultimately, it's okay. It's never enough
anyway. It is enough, or at least that's my feeling from watching the
film, that at the end, we choose the place and the manner in which we
bow out, surrounded by people that love us that aren't actually glad
to see us drop off the twig, conscious of the fact that even if we
never achieved all that we hoped for, at least we were listened to and
taken seriously before the final curtain fell on our performance. And
whether there's anything Out There or not, at least we had a decent

Of course the film is much more than all these morbid concepts. It's
hellishly entertaining and damn funny. I've made it sound like a
depressing, wrist slitting extravaganza, and it's anything but. It's a
celebration of life through the focus that death gives us, and the
fact that it addresses universal concerns doesn't lessen its impact or
its beauty. The actors all clearly loved being in the film, and the
director clearly had something personal and touching to say about our
passionate relationship with death, whether it's through our parents,
our friends or ourselves.

So we all have to venture into that great night of the soul. Big deal.
Let's at least give it our fucking best in the mean time. I dare you
to argue with that.

8 glorious memories of gorgeous people you've bedded that
you'll take to the grave and will leave you smiling even as they lower
your carcass into the ground out of 10

"I wish that one day you will have a son like you." - The Barbarian Invasions