The Barbarian Invasions

Remy (Remy Girard), a college professor with a womanising history, is mere days away from death. His wife (Dorothee Berryman), from whom he separated fifteen years ago when he refused to give up his philandering ways, summons their son, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) to see him. Sebastien and his father have never been close, with the son playing the father for destroying the family, and the father being disappointed his son never became a cultured intellectual, even though he is now a fantastically wealthy international businessman. Sebastien uses his fathers last days to reconnect with his old man, and make his remaining time happy, by contacting his father’s old friends, disrupting the Canadian health system to get him a better room, and making an arrangement with a heroine addict (Marie-Josee Croze) to make his father more comfortable before the inevitable happens.

I try not to research too much about a film before I watch it. New releases will receive trailer viewings or the occasional preview article, just to see if my interest should be piqued or not, but with older films – especially those I need to watch for my various lists – I simply don’t seek out reviews, so I can go in as blind as possible. However, sometimes that leaves me at something of a detriment, as is the case here. Throughout my viewing I felt that something was a little off with this film, as though maybe a few scenes had been cut out, as the camera felt far more familiar with a few of the characters, particularly those of Remy and his friends, than I did, having obviously never met them before. The solution to this was head-slappingly simple, as I discovered in my brief research of the film – it’s a belated sequel to 1986’s The Decline of the American Empire (also on the 1001 List), also directed by Canadian Denys Arcand, and it would seem with most of the same principle cast. As such my thoughts on this film will remain incomplete until I have at least seen Decline, and possible until I even subsequently view Invasions again. If I may offer a semi-blind piece of advice, it would be to watch Decline first, as I assume that during that film the viewer is made privy to some characterisation more liberally skipped over in this film.


Due to my lack of prior knowledge regarding the relationships between Remy and his college friends, my main focus of this film was instead upon the more difficult and brittle familiar relationships of Remy, particularly that between him and his son, Sebastien. The disfunction between the two is very well realised, with them having spoken for perhaps fifteen minutes in total in the past year. Remy is a learned scholar, and had similar hopes for his offspring, but the rift he created in the family caused his children to take a different path, and each is successful in their own way, but specifically Sebastien, who now has far more money than he could ever need. Late in the film he has a house that he no longer needs, and he has no qualms about just giving it away, such is his level of wealth. He also happily uses his money, obtained through some business involving the fluctuating price of oil, to help lubricate the hospital’s administrative system in order to improve his father’s quality of life during his last few days. The transition from Sebastien’s initial nonchalance at his father’s illness to his wanting to assist in anyway possible happened a little too quickly for my liking, but it showed at heart the son was a good person, and realised that helping his father was the right thing to do, even if he wasn’t necessarily around all that much in Sebastien’s formative years.

If there is a clear message to be drawn from the film, it is that the Canadian medical system sucks. I have no real-world evidence to base this upon, but from an early tracking shot following Remy’s nurse Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay) as she walks through the hospital’s corridors, the place would not be my first choice for medical assistance. All the rooms are full and overflowing – Remy shares with four others in a room barely big enough for two – and there are more patients cluttering up the hallways, dangling with exposed electrical wiring, open ceiling tiles and barely any room to move. In comparison, the American hospitals – visited to use their superior machinery – are pristine, spacious and all but deserted of anybody but the friendliest nursing staff in the world. 

For a film about a dying man’s last few days as he reconnects with those closest to him, the script was far lewder and more vulgar than I’d been expecting. There is discussion of the friend’s sexual conquests and their youth, and of the “rivers of sperm” Remy spilled over pin-up actress Ines Orsini, how one of his friend’s wife needs only use “a mere brush of her hand” to make him “as hard as a bull”, and how another as an old cowboy she invites round to “shake her bush.” I don’t mind a little innuendo, and in fact it was often comical, it was just far from expected and occasionally a little jarring with the otherwise more sombre tone of the film. This was welcome come the end though, when I’m not ashamed to admit it got a little dusty in the room, as Remy’s daughter sends him a final video, knowing she cannot make it back from her sailing trip before he passes forever. Maybe I’m not a robot after all, or maybe its my weakened immune system (I’m currently suffering from a horrific cold/cough combo).

The film’s focus is at times a little uneven, with regard to who we are supposed to be following – is it Sebastien? Remy? Nathalie, the impossibly pretty heroine junkie Sebastien has contracted to care for his father? – which often forgot about some characters until they were needed – Sebastien’s mother and beautiful wife (Marina Hands) for example, and having no prior relationship with Remy’s friends, I didn’t care as much as I possibly should have about their smaller, tangential plot-lines. However, there was plenty here to enjoy, be it the heart-breaking moments – the only way Remy’s students will visit him is if Sebastien pays them – or the hilarious – Sebastien goes to the police to ask where he can most easily purchase heroine.

Choose Film 7/10

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4 thoughts on “The Barbarian Invasions

  1. Nice write up. I made the dubious mistake of watching this movie less than a week after my father was unexpectedly rushed to the hospital for something that could have turned into a life-threatening situation (I didn't know this was what the film was about when I put it in). Yeah, I was a wibbling mess by the end of it because all I kept thinking was, "I don't want my father to die. I don't want my father to die." It was too fresh, too painful, too real.I also haven't seen Decline, but it didn't feel like a hindrance.

  2. Thanks. That sounds like truly terrible timing when you watched this film! I'd heard the film was far more light-hearted than it turned out to be, so I can understand why you'd watched it then, possibly in the hope of being uplifted spirits-wise. Sometimes a little readig into what a film is about can be the right thing to do, I suppose.

  3. I watched Decline and Barbarians back to back. I feel I definitely got much more out of Barbarians than I would have otherwise. As you pointed out, most of the characters appeared first in Decline and they all have a history with each other. Part of the enjoyment from Barbarians is catching up on what these characters have been up to for the last 15 years. (And a man who shows up on a news program on the TV will be familiar to you.)For what it's worth, there is far more sex talk in Decline than there is in Barbarians. In fact, Decline is pretty much a movie about people talking about sex (and sometimes engaging in it.) The sex talk in Barbarians felt like it was more Arcand throwing in a few references to the first film for the folks who had seen it.

  4. I'm guessing that is the guy talking about 9/11, which was a scene I felt a little uncomfortable with, as I'd previously assumed the title of the film referred to Sebastien et al invading Remy's last few days, and it felt like this was being compared to a terrorist attack.I'm looking forward to seeing Decline now, to get a better handle on thee characters' origins.

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