Les Invasions Barbares

Okay, okay, I promise this is the last French film I’m reviewing on this blog. This week. Anyway, Les Invasions Barbares isn’t really a French film – it’s a Canadian film – it’s just that the dialogue is in French.

Winner of the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 2003, Les Invasions Barbares is a stunning, bitter-sweet exploration of the nature of life, death, identity, culture and relationships (did I leave anything out?). Written and directed by Denys Arcand, the movie potrays the last days of a retired Political Science professor, creating an intimate portrait of the way he comes to term with his death, helped by an estranged but caring son, a motley collection of friends and ex-mistresses, a friend’s drug-addict daughter and some caring hospital staff. This is an intensely dramatic and ultimately moving film, but it is also an incredibly funny one as it exposes the little idiosyncrasies of its characters, the things that make them touchingly, endearingly human.

In some sense, the movie is about two clashes. The first is the clash between life and death – sequences of despair and loss and pain alternate with jokes and sexual innuendos; concern for opportunities missed and a life left unfulfilled is off-set by laughing reminiscences about the good old days. In one brilliant scene, the young woman who comes every night to smoke heroin with him (he needs it for the pain) asks the professor what it is he loved most in life (his reply: Everything! Wine, books, food, women) and then points out that it’s not really the present that he’s clinging on to, it’s the past he’s already lost. It’s precisely this combination of almost poetic nostalgia and clear-sighted insight that makes the movie so special.

The other clash in the movie is between the world of ‘culture’ as represented by the Professor and his arty, intellectual friends (at one point in the movie, the friends think back on all the -isms they’ve been; the list includes existentialism, socialism, marxism, leninism, collectivism, feminism, structuralism, deconstructionism and consumerism) and the modern, ‘let’s get things done’ attitude exemplified by his I-Banker son (who, in the Professor’s own words, has never read a single book, but manages, using money and sheer directness, to arrange every comfort for his father in his last days). This conflict between the modern and the classical, so reminscent of the movies of Godard (listen, they actually talk about him in the movie – it’s not just that I’m obsessed with the man!), is what, IMHO, gives the movie its intellectual weight, grounding it in a deeper reflection on life and society and making it more than just another story of a man on his deathbed.

Overall, what makes the movie an amazing watch is the sheer quality of the script – the plot is simple enough, but the ideas implicit in it, the details of the specific scenes, the individual characters, are all imaged with a combination of intelligence and sensitivity, that make this an incredibly engaging and real film.

Which is not to say that the performances aren’t superb in themselves – because they are. Remy Girard is wonderful as the old professor, and Stephane Rousseau (playing, incredibly, his first major dramatic part) is even better as the loving but inhibited son, who can find a way to make everything in the world work, except his relationship with his father. The real gem here, though, is the exquisite Marie-Josee Croze (who won the best actress honours at Cannes for her performance here) who, aside from being drop-dead beautiful, brings to her performance a sort of melancholic, dissonant intensity that makes her, effortlessly, the emotional centre of the film. Croze makes of her character a breathless vision, a young woman of such haunting and electric clarity that poems deserve to be written about her. That one character alone is worth watching the movie for.

P.S. The other interesting thing here is the pathetic state of healthcare in Canada that the film portrays – the over-crowding, the bureacracy. It’s good to know that it’s not just a third-world problem!

P.P.S The thing the movie reminded me of most was this Raymond Carver poem called My Death. You can read that on Minstrels – it’s poem # 1633

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