Director: Denys Arcand, 2003.
The Barbarian Invasions sounds like an all-action historical war movie. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is a French-Canadian drama, with not a single bullet fired or sword swung. Filled with references to sex and drugs, it s a reflection on life. So what is the meaning of the title? More on that later, as it comes up obliquely in the film.
Arcand's Oscar-winning film (Best Foreign Film) is actually a sequel to his The Decline of the American Empire, made 17 years earlier. I didn't realize this, having not seen that prior movie. But The Barbarian Invasions stands alone on its own merits. The older characters reprise their roles but their children, now mostly grown up, show up as key people in the plot.
This is the story of Rémy (Rémy Girard), a college professor in his prime but dying from terminal cancer. As we first meet him, he is lying in a bed in a Quebec hospital. The failing socialist healthcare system means he has no private room. He shares a room with several other men. At least he is not out in the corridor like many. This opening reminds me of the Romanian film, The Death of Mr Lazarescu. But where that movie focused on the ills of the Romanian medical system, this one has higher aspirations: death, life, success and reconciliation.
When Rémy's ex-wife calls their son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a highly successful financial analyst living in London with his girlfriend Gaëlle (Marina Hands, Tell No One), he reluctantly takes the next flight. There is more than the physical distance between Rémy and his estranged son. Occupational differences add to their political differences (capitalism vs socialism), combined with the blame Sébastien places on Rémy for the breakup of his parents' marriage.
Seeing the lack of privacy Sébastien uses the wealth he has created to enable his father to have some level of comfort in his last days on earth. A novice in bribery, corruption and crime, he nevertheless manages to grease enough palms to get a whole private wing for his dad. Then to bring happiness to the man he still despises, he contacts old friends and ex-lovers, bringing them to the hospital suite for a reunion that will bring tears of joy and tears of pain. Surrounded by the peope he has loved, with food and wine aplenty, Rémy waxes nostalgic reminiscing on the good times.
When the cancer gets worse and his father's pain becomes acute as well as chronic, Sébastien sets out to find some heroin to ease the pain. With the help of Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Tell No One), an old friend and present junkie, he scores the dope but he needs her to administer it to Rémy. It is in one of these interactions that Arcand brings out one of the themes of the movie.
Lying in a drug-addled state Rémy reflects on his life to Nathalie: "At least I'd have left a mark. We need to succeed, even on our own terms. To be able to say we did our best. It allows us to die at peace." And then he comes to the self-realization: "I'm a total failure." His son despises him. He has gone through multiple lovers, leaving a broken marriage and two children cast aside.
What is success? Rémy is filled with regret. To him success would have been writing a book, making a mark, leaving a legacy. Even on his own terms he lived his life for self: self-satisfaction at whatever cost to those he used and those around him. Although most define success as "the gaining of fame or prosperity" it is also defined as "the achievement of something desired, planned, or attempted." Success is a matter of perspective. From a biblical perspective: "Then you will have success if you are careful to observe the decrees and laws that the LORD gave Moses for Israel" (1 Chron 22:13). Jesus-followers do not live under the Mosaic Law but success for us is obeying the teachings of Christ. Then, just like King David in the Old Testament, who "in everything he did he had great success, because the LORD was with him" (1 Sam. 18:14), we will have success.
Being set in 2001, a TV playing in an early scene shows news reports of the 9/11 attack on the twin towers. An analyst opines on this:
What is significant, as my old prof said, is they struck at the heart of the Empire. In previous conflicts - Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, the Empire managed to keep the barbarians outside its gates, its borders. In that sense, people may look back on, and I stress may, as the beginning of the great barbarian invasions.The barbarians were those that invaded from the outside bringing with them transformation. This life change could be bad or good, but change came with the invasion. Rémy's cancer was his barbarian invasion, bringing with it termination of life. But it also brought opportunity, opportunity for reflection on living and dying.
For many death comes suddenly, in a car crash or in an airplane diving into a building. For others it creeps up on us slowly as we get old and gray. In the former we have no time to react or reflect. In the latter, we have too much time and often do not get around to it. In Rémy's case his barbarian gave him the gift of time: just enough of it to come to terms with his life and his friends.
The barbaric cancer ultimately brought reconciliation between Rémy and Sébastien. The father-son relationship is supposed to be one of love and mutual respect. When death knocks on the door, it is time to put aside bitterness, bury the hatchet, and restore relationships.
Death may knock on our door today. Knowing this we must make reconciliation a priority. Reconciliation with God is priority one. He has made this possible through the death and resurrection of Jesus (Rom. 5:10, 2 Cor. 5:18). We can partake of reconciliation by bowing our heart, bending our knee, and following Jesus (Acts 4:12, Phil. 2:10). Then we must reconcile with our family and friends. Life is too short and fragile to live with broken relationship, as Rémy had.
In a beautiful scene, Rémy whispers in Sébastien's ear, "I wish that one day you will have a son like you." Success may have eluded him but he lived long enough to see his son as a strong and caring man, and to give him a blessing. Would that we might do likewise.
Copyright 2009, Martin Baggs