The Barbarian Invasions is an intelligent, curious and complex film which revolves around two emotional and social poles.
Set in Montreal, it explores the last days of a 50-something history lecturer, a civilized and self indulgent womaniser, a self professed "sensual socialist" who is dying of cancer. Directed by Denys Arcand, who made The Decline of the American Empire (1986) and Jesus of Montreal (1989), the film meticulously reveals the life and times of Remy.
This is Remy, who we met in The Decline... Who at first seems oddly resigned to his death perhaps because he expects nobody to care much. But under the influence of those who love him; and coincidently those from whom he has grown most distant, divorced wife, past lovers, son and daughter, these relationships are rekindled. This is the emotional core of the story.
Remy has been invaded by the cancer of ageing and of disease. Remy's world, as he is about to depart it, also has been invaded by careless profit taking motives, corrupt officials and heroin dealers who rule the streets. Another of the invaders could be the perpetrators of senseless acts of terrorism as portrayed by Arcand using footage of the twin tower attacks.
But the film is also about the decline of the welfare state after years of economic rationalist assault. "I voted for medicare" declares the resigned Remy as it becomes obvious that the outrageously overcrowded and under resourced hospital where we find him is unable to provide the care he needs.
His estranged son, a man of the new world, a wealthy London based financial wheeler-dealer, uses his money to buy influence. The son arranges to bring his father to the US for treatment, arranges the opening and furnishing of a ward closed due to budget cuts (while on the floor above the corridors are full of unattended patients), and arranges the supply of heroin when the pain is too much.
In making these arrangements the interaction of the son with establishment authorities who have either accepted the grim corruption of civil society or are helpless to stop is the other core of the film which many reviewers miss.
The film, through Remy and his re-united band of friends regrets the failures of the 1960s and 1970s generation to succeed with their affiliation to the various left "isms" (Maoism, Leninism, Trotskyism) but does not does not call for the regeneration of any of these ideals and ways of organizing.
The film fails to leave us with a solution but it does succeed in creating a sense of humanity prevailing over all the invaders. For this and for its depiction of the inhumanity of the economic rationalist world in which we live Barbarian Invasions is a film worth watching.
Reviewer: Leon Parissi