This review was corrected May 27, 2003.
A full-bodied, funny and gloriously unpretentious ode to family, friendship and the meaning of life, “The Barbarian Invasions” is solidly entertaining, sharply written and genuinely touching. Via appealingly flawed characters and breezy pacing, pic confronts matters of life and death with irreverent wit and a tender eye. Denys Arcand’s continuation, 17 years later, of “The Decline of the American Empire,” was the fifth strongest Quebec opening of all time upon its May 9 release. Abrim with polished repartee, Arcand’s most satisfying pic since 1989’s “Jesus of Montreal” looks set to “invade” arthouses worldwide.
Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who divorced her inveterate womanizer of a husband, Remy (Remy Girard), 15 years ago, phones their son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) in London, where he’s made his fortune as a savvy financial manager. She tells him that Remy, a university professor, has been hospitalized and is terminally ill in Montreal.
Father and son are not close — “My son is an ambitious capitalist prude whereas all my life I’ve been a hedonistic socialist lecher” as bedridden Remy describes their rapport to a visiting nun — but, nonetheless, Sebastien and his French fiancee Gaelle (Marina Hands) fly to Remy’s bedside in Canada.
In a series of interactions that neatly satirize administrative deadlock, greedy unions and pseudo-sociological babble, coolly efficient negotiator Sebastien gets his ailing dad a private room and black market pain-killers. (Some of his solutions are so ingenious it would be a shame to reveal them here.) Sebastien contacts his father’s far flung intellectual co-conspirators and summons them back to cheer Remy.
Reprising their roles from the 1986 pic, Remy’s circle of friends and lovers are played by the same thesps to resonant effect. Happily, one needn’t have seen the original to follow and embrace current venture. Arcand’s affection for his self-indulgent protagonists, most of whom have mellowed with age, also paves the way for the next generation.
Neatly satirizing the fine line between vice and virtue every step of the way, script dips into bittersweet wells of nostalgia without ever tipping into smarm or complacency. The group’s recapping of political and intellectual tides they foolishly embraced is a comic highlight, topped by Remy’s hilarious analysis of how a Godard film warped his chances with a gorgeous Chinese chick during China’s cultural revolution.
Marbled with pointed digs at Canada’s health system (in a running gag, hospital personnel always have the wrong name for the patient being treated) as well as being cordially peeved by American supremacy, pic also quietly hails the crucial role that movies play in forging our sensibilities.
While gleefully irreverent, pic is never gratuitously unfair in its criticisms. For example, Arcand finds a lovely way to underscore that the Catholic church has become strangely irrelevant in a once overwhelmingly Catholic nation, while also providing a sweetly useful role for a nun.
With its characters mostly into their 50s, there’s far less talk of sex than there was 17 years ago, but what is incorporated is choice indeed.
Celebrated stand-up comic Rousseau is very good as the sober son whose still waters run deep; Marie-Josee Croze is excellent as Sebastien’s childhood playmate who provides a crucial service to Remy and, anchoring the ensemble cast, Girard is outstanding as the bon vivant who’s about to have the “vivant” yanked out from under him.
Tech aspects are pro across the board. Print screened in Cannes has apparently been clipped by 12 minutes to omit purely local references.