The Barbarian Invasions (2003)

“Contrary to belief, the 20th century wasn’t that bloody. It’s agreed that wars caused 100 million deaths. Add 10 million for the Russian gulags. The Chinese camps, we’ll never know, but say 20 million. So 130, 145 million dead. Not all that impressive. In the 16th century, the Spanish and Portuguese managed, without gas chambers or bombs, to slaughter 150 million Indians in Latin America. With axes! That’s a lot of work, sister. Even if they had church support, it was an achievement. So much so tha the Dutch, English, French, and later Americans followed their lead and butchered another 50 million. 200 million dead in all! The greatest massacre in history took place right here. And not the tiniest holocaust museum. The history of mankind is a history of horrors.”

‘The Barbarian Invasions’, directed by Denys Arcand in 2003, is a Canadian black comedy and a sequel to the 1986 movie ‘The Decline of the American Empire’.   Rémy Girard plays an academic who is dying from cancer. His son Sébastien, a quantitative financier in London played by Stéphane Rousseau , flies home to support his mother and father, despite his feeling that his father’s infidelities have led to familial dysfunction. As his father declines in health, Sébastien locates a source of heroin and, with the help of a friend from his childhood who is now addicted to drugs, he doses his father to alleviate the pain of his illness. Rémy’s friends gather round as the end approaches, and their conversation bounces around subjects including sex and the effect of their aging. Finally, Rémy dies of an overdose at his lake-house as his friends say goodbye. It’s an unlikely comedy: Rémy’s vanity and philandering, and the labyrinthine, Kafkaesque Canadian health service are the richest source of humour. There is also a strong seam of political discourse through the film from discussion about terrorism to French-Canadian nationalism. At its heart though, is a simple film about a family reuniting and a man coming to terms with his impending death. Any film that can make the use of heroin a touching scene has to be special, and ‘The Barbarian Invasions’ goes one step further: the heroin becomes a way of bringing Sébastien closer to his father, and of restoring to health his friend.

Would I recommend it? Yes – it’s a genuinely moving film with a rich vein of humour and a densely written script. The characters are strongly defined, and the situation feels somehow universal. By the end of Rémy’s life, you have become completely engaged in his pain and his release from life. Watch in a double bill with ‘Wild Strawberries‘.


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