The terminally ill Rémy (Rémy Girard, center) faces the inevitability of death in Barbarian Invasions. (courtesy photo)

Invasion of the barbarian son in an intellectual sequel to 'The Decline of the American Empire'

Sequels need not be the offspring of expensive, violent blockbusters. The Decline of the American Empire, a 1986 French-Canadian feature about erudite epicureans who chatter over dinner, attacked the United States, but only intellectually. Producers who want to make a killing usually have to stage many, but writer-director Denys Arcand, who also made Jesus of Montreal, arms his characters with ideas instead of Uzis. Reassembling the original cast 17 years later in Barbarian Invasions, he arranges to kill off one of them - with a brain tumor.

Rémy (Girard), an outspoken and outrageously randy professor of history, is dying of cancer, and his wife, Louise (Berryman), summons their estranged son, Sebastien (Rousseau), to tend to his father. A venture capitalist who lives in London, Sebastien earns more money in a week than his anti-capitalist father does in a year. Sebastien is appalled by the overcrowded and underfunded Montreal hospital in which he finds Rémy. Accustomed to using his wealth to take control of things, he bribes hospital administrators and union representatives into setting aside an entire floor as a private ward for his father. But Rémy refuses to abandon his principles and his country to accept expensive treatment from a specialist in Baltimore. Sebastien seeks out criminal drug pushers to buy heroin to ease his father's pain. He gathers the professor's colleagues, students, friends, and lovers. By the time Rémy dies, he is reconciled to a life he has judged "a total failure," and to the son who seems a barbarian stranger.

Barbarian Invasions
(Les Invasions barbares)
Writ. & dir. Denys Arcand; feat. Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Marie-José Crose (R)
In the film, a TV commentator refers to the 9-11 attacks as the start of barbarian invasions, and Arcand exploits that term in several ways. Rémy blithely remarks that barbarity is nothing new, that "The history of mankind is a history of horrors," but he is visibly uncomfortable sharing a room with a Pakistani immigrant, in a hospital whose corridors are cluttered with patients who look as if they still need visas. His bookish world is being displaced by people, including his own students, who are utterly ignorant of Dante, Montaigne, Cioran, and other authors whose names are dropped, plummeting into the cultural abyss. Once a brilliant and promising doctoral candidate at Berkeley, Rémy, now 53, has published nothing of any consequence and has spent his career at a provincial university in futile battle against collective amnesia. His son secretly pays a few former students to feign veneration and visit their old professor during his final days.

For most of its length, Barbarian Invasions thrusts comic barbs into capitalist greed, health care, labor unions, the Catholic Church, and Yankee imperialism. It becomes a merry death watch when Rémy, a sensual socialist, trades ribald memories with several former mistresses and his wife. Urbane friends review their ideological evolution through Marxism, structuralism, feminism, nihilism - just short of the aneurysm they deserve. Arcand seems to be mocking the superficial banter, except that the film itself is keen on preening. Sebastian discards his cell phone, but reconciliation with his father is neither plausible nor palatable simply because it is so manifestly predictable. Nathalie (Croze), a tormented heroin junkie who procures the illegal drugs Rémy craves, deserves to be in a movie that respects the complexities of its characters, and its audience.

Barbarian Invasions is redeemed by the simple eloquence of its final 20 minutes. Everyone gathers at the lakeside cottage that was the site of prandial prattle in The Decline of the American Empire. Calmly and serenely, Rémy faces and embraces death, the final, invincible barbarity. •


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