A few weeks ago, as I was mindlessly journeying across channels on cable, I run into a film that made quite an impression on me when I first watched it a few years ago. The film in question was The Barbarian Invasions by French Canadian director, Denys Arcand. It earned him an Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2004, among many other numerous awards.
The film revolves around Rémy, a former college professor who is confined to a hospital due to liver cancer. Whatever the grim circumstances, he devotes all his energies to maintain his bon vivant approach to life. As nurses, friends and former lovers parade into his hospital room, he maintains the facade almost intact. However, what really brings flavor to the story, as well as conflict and humor to the foreground in equal measures, is Rémy’s son, Sébastien. It’s the initial clash between these two that really puts the whole story into motion. Father and son have been estranged for years as a result of their contrasting philosophies. While Rémy is an old school leftist who flirted with every revolutionary movement since the 1960’s, Sébastien is a successful businessman who has deftly navigated the world of finance. The father thinks of himself as a staunch idealist thus he perceives his sons almost as a traitor, a representative of a coldblooded capitalist world. The son has always resented this prejudice but despite his initial misgivings about reuniting with his father, he soon rushes to his side. It doesn’t take long for us to see that the public hospital where Rémy is staying becomes a symbol of everything that went wrong about the old generation; Sébastien must battle with unions and bureaucrats in a place that overflows with red tape and decay in order to ensure some decent care for his father.
As the final days loom closer and closer, Rémy and his friends reminisce about the old days realizing the ideals from their youth were an illusion, a facade that, like the hospital, covered up for a much more unpleasant reality. Lurking far in the background, like a murmur behind the main story, there’s the aftermath of 9/11, which is fresh in everybody’s minds as a reminder that just like in the final days of the Roman Empire, the barbarians are at the gates. Reflections about life, death and politics abound, yet the film walks us through the journey with charm and humor, never becoming overly solemn while at the same time retaining a considerable level of depth.