Monday, August 10, 2009

#32 Film of the Decade- The Barbarian Invasions


#32- The Barbarian Invasions- Denys Arcand (2003)

Netflix's pithy description of The Barbarian Invasions reads: "In this Oscar-winning drama, fifty-ish Remy (Remy Girard) is divorced and hospitalized in Montreal. His ex-wife, Louise, asks their estranged son, Sebastien, to come home from London (where he now lives) as a show of support for his father. As soon as he arrives, Sebastien makes the impossible happen, using his contacts and disrupting the health care system in every way possible."

While it's technically accurate, that summary--especially the wacky "makes the impossible happen...in every way possible" cliche--is superficial. And for once, almost accidentally, that superficial stance is an interesting way to approach this film. In many ways Denys Arcand's sequel to his Decline of the American Empire is about the surface level of our lives. Sebastien, played with oleaginous aplomb by Stephane Rousseau, begins using his contacts out of resentment. What's a few Canadian bucks for a private hospital floor if it means he can stick it to his absent philandering pop? That bribe is a bigger favor than Remy has ever done for his son.

At a certain point though, Sebastien's arrangements take on a different air. Finding a heroin dealer because the hospital only dispenses morphine seems dangerous for someone so uncaring. What begins as a game of bravado becomes devotion. Arcand seems to ask, "What is the difference between the superficial and the heartfelt?" And, more importantly, "Does that division matter?"

For example, Remy, a history professor, is upset by his students' cold non-reaction to his health problems. He is surprised when, months later, they visit him at the hospital and explain how much they miss him. It's a heartwarming moment; we learn that people care more about us than they sometimes let on. Then, in the next scene, we find out that Sebastien paid them to be there. Does that reveal make the emotions of the preceding moment more false? Sebastien's tactics still touched Remy, even if they were under-handed. Does it matter how directly sincere intentions are if they still get the desired effect?

Arcand layers a motif of boundaries throughout the movie to externalize this idea. Girard performs a thoughtful monologue about the many women he's been with, both "real" and--as clips of celebrities play over his narration--imaginary. The characters move back and forth between the U.S. and Canada, and sometimes the characters slip between English and French, playing with boundaries of language as well. (It's worth mentioning that this is Arcand's return to the French language after a ten-year absence. The choice of language is completely intentional.) The film's title refers to the 9/11 attacks, the first time terrorists--barbarians--attacked the U.S. on its own soil, a time when many people were sorting out some of these complex divisions of what is important and what is real for the first time.

In Arcand's script, which won Best Screenplay honors at Cannes, he ends up extending this idea to forgiveness. How long should you hold grudges, if at all? When does the past no longer matter? The characters don't change suddenly in this movie, and the way they convincingly let superficial boundaries disintegrate into more meaningful connections is handled in a way I've never seen before.

The Barbarian Invasions is a film about death, but it ends up being inspirational, joyous, life-affirming--anything but superficial.


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