Sunday, November 06, 2005

The Barbarian Invasions

2004 Oscar Winner Best Foreign Language Film

Dir: Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal; The Decline of the American Empire)

I had the idea to watch the Decline before watching this film, its sequel. I am so glad that I did. Not only is The Barbarian Invasions a triumph in its own right, but stands as one of the great sequels I have ever seen, a wonderful extention and improvement on the first. The movie is smart, moving, and so prescient in its unflinching observations on contemporary North America.

Remy Girard reprises his role as the philandering history professor, but this time on his death bed. His cancer has brought his scattered friends from that fateful dinner party back together. His estranged family as well has returned to Montreal, even his very rich son, with whom the father hardly speaks. In this sequel, the conversations between the characters are not marked by the cavalier acceptance of pain and suffering of their youth. Everyone has, in some way, learned a lesson, come to peace with their self destructive sexual practices of before. The display both a notaglia for the good old days but a wisdom of how they weren't all that good..

The families, though, have never healed. Marriages remain broken, and most importantly the children are destroyed. Either cold and calculating, or wandering, or lost in drug addiction, the selfishness of Girard and others in Decline now comes to be the main obstacle to overcome in his final days as he seeks forgiveness and reconciliation. It is a story that is made all the more moving by the two hour character sketch from the first movie, that in my mind only serves as the backstory so that we may know in depth and complexity how these families came to be so estranged, and how hard it will be to reunite.

Another powerful theme in the movie is the inability of the Canadian bureaucracy to render paliative care to Girard. He cannot get a PET scan, and must travel to America for it. He cannot get a room, so the son bribes the unions and the bureaucrats to make up an abandoned floor of the hospital. He cannot get pain drugs, so the son arranges with the police to get heroin for his father. Money talks and the same ruthless skills that made the son a corporate raider are now trained to get his father good care. Somewhere in that process, father and son come to trust each other again, and the tranformation is subtle and clever.

While hedonism was the mark of an Empire in Decline, the Barbarians have arrived at the palace gates in this film. 9/11 is cited as the first time that enemies of North America have struck the home soil (using actual footage of the WTC that continues to pack a punch with me because we see it so rarely). Like Rome, the siege has begun. This empire is now corrupt and incapable to doing anything effectively. One bureaucrat, when offered a bribe, chides the son by saying "This is not a third world country." Once the bribe is increased, she accepts. The story is provocative and not incorrect, a rare thing.

The balance of politics and the personal story line is just right. The resolution to Girard's life is touching and appropriate. And the character development in Arcand's movie is a model for how to do sequels. What emerges is a grat play in two acts, a novella. It is great cinema.

My highest recommendation, but only if taken together.