Denys Arcand’s Oscar winner is an undeniable masterpiece on life, death and the importance of family and friends.
31 Oct 2014 - 2:30 PM  UPDATED 16 Aug 2016 - 12:11 PM

Because it’s an inspired but unlikely sequel

The pictures that usually get sequels are superhero adventures, inoffensive mainstream comedies and action rampages, with the latest installment arriving two or three years after the previous one. Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions is a film about memory and mortality, the collapse of the social contract, and the bitterness of regret, which revisits the characters of the filmmaker’s 1986 classic, The Decline of the American Empire. Seventeen years on, as the characters prepare for the passing of one of their most vital, if contentious, members, the group’s iconoclastic imbiber of life’s pleasures, Remy (Remy Girard), they are different people, and there’s a tender sense of enquiry to revisiting them after so long.

[ Watch/Read: David Stratton's five-star review of The Barbarian Invasions ]

It’s funny

Remy may be stricken with cancer, but his vituperative sense of humour is in rude health. With friends, a former wife, and ex-lovers gathered around the history professor’s bed (being a member of one group doesn’t preclude you from another in Remy’s world), the banter and badinage is vibrant as the now middle-aged and middle-class libertines of the original film reminisce and in some cases reconcile as the antiseptic veneer of the hospital room gives way to good food, good conversation, and some lively retorts; whoever calls Remy a “randy snake” probably gets it right.

It’s not sentimental

One of the most caustic elements of the film is the presence of Remy’s estranged son, Sebastian (Stephane Rousseau), a financial guru who jets in from London at the behest of his mother, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), to help his father. Sebastian, who has forsaken culture for commerce as a way of punishing his father, does this by proceeding to bribe anyone connected with his father’s care – administrators, health unions – so that he ends up in the lap of private luxury. This is, of course, also a retort to a man who describes himself as a “sensual socialist” – the believer in universal health care spends his final weeks enjoying the medical care that’s usually the province of the 1 percent.

Roy Dupuis’ face

The French-Canadian actor has a supporting role, as a police officer monitoring the situation, and the triangular set of his face is instantly recognisable to anyone who’s seen any American television show that shoots in Canada for budgetary reasons.

Remy doesn’t become a saint

There’s nothing like an imminent death to brighten the halo around a movie’s lead character, but Remy is stubborn in his refusal to embrace perfection, and Arcand doesn’t push the character out of his natural ways. As the pain from his cancer grows, Remy is comforted by Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), the heroin addicted daughter of one of his cohorts, who Sebastian recruits to provide narcotic comfort to his father. In his final days Remy smokes heroin with the watchful young woman, before they stretch out on his hospital bed together in a contented haze.

Fade to black

Arcand doesn’t cut from one scene to the next, he repeatedly fades to black at the conclusion of a scene, and those mere seconds emphasise the finality of what looms for Remy. It’s an artful, heartfelt touch in a film full of them.


Watch The Barbarian Invasions in full at SBS On Demand: