Barbarian Invasions, The (Les Invasions Barbares)

The most moving moment in The Barbarian Invasions, a very moving new film by the Quebecois director Denys Arcand, comes as the now 50ish history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard), whose character Arcand first created for his film The Decline of the American Empire in 1987, is chatting with his future daughter-in-law, Gaëlle (Marina Hands), in his darkened hospital room one night. He confides that he cheated on his wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), the mother of his son and her fiancée, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), within six months of their marriage.

It is really a boast. Rémy has long been estranged from both Louise and Sébastien, but both have returned to his side to be with him as he is dying. Yet he is still able to enjoy being a rogue and a ladies’ man by reputation — a reputation accentuated by the presence among those who now visit him daily of not one but two ex-mistresses, both of whom also appeared in Decline. He is trying to impress this young girl with whom, even on his deathbed, he has tried to put on the old charm.

Gaëlle replies mildly that on meeting Sébastien she had decided that their relationship would be forever. Rémy, with the condescension of age to youth murmurs something mildly ironic about “love.” Immediately she turns on him — not in an angry or hostile way but with a hitherto repressed passion. It had nothing to do with love, she says. Her parents had talked like that. It was “love”-this and “love”-that with them. “I love you forever” and so forth.

But, she says, “you can’t build a life on pop-song philosophy.” Her parents had divorced when she was three. Theirs had been a fairly amicable parting and for years her father had come to have Sunday lunch at their house. Every time, half an hour before it was time for him to go, she had gone outside to lie down in front of his car in order to prevent him from leaving. “I decided I would never put my kids through that.”

The rebuke to Rémy’s whole way of life, the pursuit of (mainly sexual) happiness so memorably invoked in the earlier film and now remembered with such mixed feelings in this, is stunning. And it is not the only one. At another point he and several friends of his own age and leftist political views are sitting on the porch of a rustic cabin smoking a joint and reminiscing about the various intellectual fashions of the past 40 years. “Was there an -ism we didn’t worship?” says one of them ruefully.

“Not cretinism,” says another to general laughter.

But Rémy will not even allow that much. He tells the story of having been sent, as a prominent Canadian leftist, to interview an attractive visitor from Mao’s China in the 1970s. Attempting to ingratiate himself with her, he had congratulated her on the Cultural Revolution — not realizing that in the course of it her father had been killed, her mother had committed suicide and she herself had spent two years feeding pigs. He had seen the films of Jean-Luc Godard and read the novels of Philippe Sollers, he tells the others, and so had simply assumed that the Cultural Revolution was to be regarded as an achievement. “Cretinism doesn’t sink any lower.”

Yet he is otherwise both personally and politically unrepentant. He has too much emotional capital invested in his own self-image as a romantic figure still espousing what he regards the life-affirming values of his generation and of the West’s own cultural revolution of the 1960s. The corollary of this attachment is his lament over the coming of the “barbarians,” among whom he numbers fanatical Middle Eastern theocrats, drug dealers and Sébastien who, as a risk-assessment manager for a London brokerage, is both a “capitalist” and a man who prefers video games to reading.

But Sébastien, in spite of the tension between them, brings his money and his organizational skills to a successful effort to make his father’s last days happy and peaceful, in the process exposing both the corruption in the Canadian health and legal systems and — when he buys heroin to relieve his father’s pain from Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), the beautiful junkie and daughter of one of the mistresses — the seamy underside of the culture of self-indulgence of which the old man still prides himself on being a part.

There are multiple ironies in this bridging of the gap between the rhetoric and the reality of Rémy’s life, and in his embrace at last of the “barbarian” son who is in many ways more grown up than he is. It seems unlikely at this point that the still babyish boomers of the 1960s will ever get a better epitaph for their ill-fated revolution than this.

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