Barbarian Invasions

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Movie Review by Stephen Doyle

Starring: Remy Girard, Stephane Rousseau, Marie-Josee Croze, Marina Hands
Director: Denys Arcand

Although on the surface, this film seems to be a genteel comedy of manners about middle aged French Canadians, don’t be duped. It also serves as an uncompromising examination of the theme of death. The powerful effect of the film is to remind us forcefully that our time on this earth is finite. The death in particular that this film focuses upon is the one of Remy (Remy Girard). He is an opinionated university professor in his 50’s who has just been told he has a terminal illness. In the remaining months before his death he is joined by his ex-wife and son, as well as an amusing assortment of old friends and mistresses, while he ruminates poignantly on what life is all about, and whether he lived it correctly and whether he made the most of it. Wisely, director and screenwriter Denys Arcand offers no neat answers to these questions.

Apart from Remy’s impending death not a lot else really happens. It is a dialogue heavy tale which would have made great theatre. As it is, it also makes decent cinema, but in the arty French fashion rather than in the Hollywood blockbuster tradition.

Actors are given the chance to shine in their meaty roles, which is exactly what they do. I particularly enjoyed Stephane Rousseau’s performance as Remy’s charismatic son Sebastien. He plays a city stockbroker, who leaves London to return to his native Canada when he hears of his father’s illness. He soon reveals himself as an artful wheeler and dealer type as he humorously makes dodgy deals and greases various palms to ensure that his father dies in the greatest possible comfort. Rousseau, in real life, is a popular stand-up comedian in Canada, and here he delivers a wonderfully cool performance.

The film is let down by some unconvincing plot and character details. For example, Natalie (Marie-Josee Croze) is supposed to be a heroine addict yet she is good looking, well mannered and well groomed. Croze won the best actress award at Cannes but I found her a deeply unconvincing junkie. Similarly, I also found the way that Remy also becomes a heroine addict in the final months of his life unconvincing. His son obtains the drug for him in order to lessen his physical pain, but his introduction to the drug is done with so little fuss, as if it is the most natural thing in the world for a middle aged professor to start experimenting with skag.

Despite these reservations I still admire this film, mostly because of its thought-provoking and profound treatment of the subject of death. Watching Remy edge closer and closer to death, watching as he realises that all of his life’s favourite pleasures – wine, fine food, sex and so on – are now denied him, is an incredibly moving experience.

4 out of 6 stars