Best Foreign Film Oscar winner offers farcical look at death
The title smacks of historical epics and/or martial-arts action, but The Barbarian Invasions, which got this year’s Oscar for best foreign film, is comedy/drama, and a French Canadian one at that.
It’s also a sequel of sorts, with writer-director Denys Arcand showing us the characters from his The Decline of American Civilization (1986) 20 or so years further into their lives and very close to the approaching death of one of the group’s standouts, a sexually rambunctious classics professor named Remy (Remy Girard).
Remy and his friends were a bunch of sexually adventurous and raucously radical academics, already nostalgic for the 1960s, in the 1986 film, and they trot out their bawdy humor and rowdy witticisms for what is plainly the last visit they will have with the most studiously flamboyant member of their studiously rebellious circle.
Fortunately, the new film invests only a part of its energy in the pedantic ribaldry and glib attitudinizing it shares with its predecessor. Most crucially, Remy’s estranged son Sebastiane (Stephane Rousseau), now a successful financier, is on hand as an angry but increasingly vigorous and resourceful care-giver for the last days of his cheerfully difficult dad. As a New Economy wheeler-dealer (and the antithesis of his father’s socialist posturing), Sebastiane is very good at placing bribes to get his father upgraded private quarters in the hospital, and he does not hesitate in finding a source for heroin when he hears it’s superior to morphine as an anesthetic.
The men and women from the previous film have survived with their pseudo-rebellious impudence intact, so it’s a relief and a kind of a blessing that the younger characters have variously broken free of the solipsism, however genial, of their elders. Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), the heroin-addicted daughter of a group member, is a case in point.
She is partner in anesthesia (and assisted suicide) to Remy and the ostensibly illusionless outlaw counterpart to Sebastiane’s vigorous exploitation of the unofficial loopholes in Canada’s social-welfare system. Crozee got the best-actress prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 2003 for her portrayal of the sorrowful young woman who is both almost dying alongside Remy and edging, perhaps, toward some kind of conflicted rebirth.
The title leaks into muddled metaphors that pretend to call several kinds of civilization into doubt. But even with its more fatuous pronouncements, Invasion has its moments as death-defying entertainment and as a disjointed social farce in which you have to break the rules if you’re going to have any chance of doing the right thing.