While you stepped out of the room to refill your bean dip and
cocktail weenie plates for the Best Foreign Film award segment
during this year’s Oscar telecast, you missed a very happy
director Denys Arcand accepting his award for the Canadian film
“The Barbarian Invasions” (“Les invasions
barbares”). The film, which he also scripted, is a touching
portrait of a dying man re-living the life he led through his old
friends and lovers.
The film is in French with subtitles, but don’t
immediately shun it because of a little reading. Foreign films
often take on subjects that Hollywood has tackled before but
usually deal with them more honestly, as foreign filmmakers are
less constrained by the expectations and formulas of Hollywood.
Stories of dying men living out their last hours show up weekly
in the cinemas as well as on small screen movies-of-the-week, but
Arcand’s film sidesteps cliché and creates a memorable
portrayal of a man who regrets his past and is struggling to accept
Rémy (Rémy Girard, “The Red Violin”)
is dying of cancer, but in his prime, he was an energetic college
professor. While portrayed as a smart and enthusiastic man, the
film does not hide the fact that he was also a womanizer. His wife
divorced him because of his philandering, and his grown-up son
Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau, “Les Dange
Reux”), now a millionaire living in London, has not spoken to
Rémy in years.
When Sébastien hears that his dad will not live for much
longer, he comes to Canada to help his father through his last
days. He rents out a deserted hospital wing for Rémy and
invites many of the old man’s friends and lovers to accompany
the dying man and bid him a final farewell. And when the morphine
stops assuaging his father’s pain, Sébastien leaves
the hospital to find heroin, meeting drug addict Nathalie, one of
the film’s most interesting characters. Actress
Marie-Joseé Croze brings a removed sympathy to Nathalie, and
her subtly powerful performance won her the Best Actress Award at
the Cannes Film Festival in 2003.
The supporting characters’ quirks make the film work, even
when it threatens to delve into familiar areas. One of
Rémy’s friends is now gay, his other friend has
married a girl half his age who bore him several children, and two
of his ex-lovers still cling to him, as he clings to the memories
of the times he had with them. Even his ex-wife shows him support
as he becomes increasingly pain-afflicted.
“The Barbarian Invasions” has the capability to
affect different people in a number of different ways. It will
undoubtedly strike a nerve with middle-aged adults facing many of
the same problems as the characters in the film, but its
presentation of the complexity of the father-son relationship will
resonate deeply with an entirely different generation.
The film relies heavily on the importance of memory in dark
times because that is all Rémy has left of his passions.
Some of the most tearjerking moments occur when he recalls his most
poignant memories of the seemingly insignificant moments that end
up meaning the most to him.
At its bittersweet conclusion, the film reminds the audience
that it is possible to meet death with acceptance and satisfaction,
and with the film’s loving and vibrant characters at
Rémy’s bedside to comfort him, it is easy to see why.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.