January 10, 2004 -- “The Barbarian Invasions” (Les Invasions barbares) is beautifully-written story about family and friends rallying around a dying man. A followup on writer-director Denys Arcand's earlier film, “The Decline of the American Empire,” it offers a lot of insight into life, death and relationships, while continuing some political themes from the earlier film. The heavy symbolism in the film depicts the September 11 attack on the World Trade Centers as the beginning of the barbarian attacks that will bring down the American Empire, much as the the attacks of the Visigoths and Vandals and other barbarians brought down the Roman Empire.
Although the film was made in Canada, it is very French in its world view. How else would you have an ex-wife, her husband and two of his mistresses all co-existing peacefully in the same room? You gotta love the French! Most of the dialogue is in French, with some English.
The key actors in the film are the father, Rémy, played by Rémy Girard, and his son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau). Although their relationship is strained, Sébastien puts aside his differences with his father and tries his utmost to make his father's last days as comfortable as possible. The razor-sharp dialogue effortlessly illuminates the differences between those who live in the real world and those who live in the burned out wasteland of liberal academia.
Rémy's world view is put to the test, while his more conservative son deals with the harsh realities of the depressingly inadequate Canadian medical system (yet another sign of the collapse of the American Empire). Rémy is even forced to travel to the U.S. for one medical test he can't get in Canada. Sébastien deals with drug dealers, the police, the unions and hospital administrators in a heroic struggle to ease his father's suffering.
All this is shown in a backdrop of the destruction of the World Trade Centers by terrorists, barbarian invasions indeed. Even this attack, terrible as it was, pales in comparison to what was done to the Native Americans by the Europeans, Rémy notes. Those historical atrocities even exceed the atrocities of World War II, he argues. This film was probably made prior to the latest Iraq war. Since that war, the parallels between the United States and the Decline of the Roman Empire are even more marked. Since the basic premise of the war, the removal of weapons of mass destruction, was false, it will make it more difficult to recruit more soldiers for future wars. The over-extended duty by National Guard units is also making recruitment and retention more difficult. Already, there are foreign nationals serving in the armed forces of the United States, just as there were in the Roman Legions during the declining years of that empire.
There is a lot of food for thought in this film, and a lot of humanity as well. The scenes between Rémy and his family and friends are very poignant. Rémy's struggles to reconcile his own views about death and the meaning of his life are quite revealing. His lack of spirituality seems to make his passing more difficult. Rémy's death itself may also be yet another reflection on the impending death of the American Empire. Sébastien's strange partnership with a drug addict and drug dealer are revealing as well. In a way, the film argues that drug dealers are a necessary evil, at least when it comes to the shortcomings of health care systems. In another way, the film may even be arguing that drugs are the only way some people can deal with the existential void which awaits them at the end of their life. This is one of the best films of 2003. Solid acting, directing and editing throughout. It rates an A.
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