Vocal Chords | Film & TV | Salt Lake City | Salt Lake City Weekly

Vocal Chords 

There’s a little sweet music in the talky characters of The Barbarian Invasions.

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The libertine socialists in the films of Quebecois director Denys Arcand inhabit a world where their beliefs were something revolutionary, which makes the believers something special. For instance, a professor who sleeps with everything on legs and parties like it’s 1969 is a hero of flawed nobility, not a sleazy perv in a corduroy jacket. Arcand likes people who think big thoughts, live extravagant intellectual lives and talk about themselves in exhausting detail—and when it’s time to go, they even die in the most poetic, redeemable ways possible.


If this sounds fun to you, The Barbarian Invasions will talk your ear off about it. Even if Arcand’s quaintly dated ideas on everything from chivalry to global conflict induce either yawning or vomiting in you, you might at least be entertained by a polemicist who loves to hear himself talk through the mouths of his characters. Arcand isn’t always smart or compelling, but most of his work contains bits of poetry to be sifted from the prosaic.


His new picture, nominated for an Academy Award in the foreign film category, is a sequel to his 1986 film The Decline of the American Empire, in which several college history teachers and their lovers bounced around Montreal in a soap opera for the French-Canadian upper class. Arcand said he never thought he would revisit these characters, so The Barbarian Invasions stands on its own as a chronicle of the slow death of Rémy (Rémy Girard), the “civil hedonist” at the center of the proceedings.


Rémy is the type of flawed hero who seems to push away friends and relatives with every new dalliance or change in his belief structure. But the free spirit has come down with terminal cancer, and he’s wondering how to wrap up his life. His ex-wife, who left because he kept having sex with women who weren’t her, phones his estranged son Sebastien (Stéphane Rousseau), a wealthy London banker who rushes to his father’s side for reasons he can’t articulate. Sebastien is the Alex P. Keaton to his baby-boomer father, and though Rémy believes his son’s job to be evil, he doesn’t complain much when Sebastien rescues him from the backups and bureaucracy of the Canadian health-care system by securing a private room in a busy hospital with a few well-placed bribes. Former lovers and students begin to trickle into Rémy’s room, and he is forced to face his past without a future—and being Rémy, he’s unafraid.


The most affecting parts of The Barbarian Invasions are about Rémy’s poor communication over the generation gap—peculiar for a man so in love with his own voice. Girard recognizes the broad, stereotypical nature of his character in both films, but he makes something human out of both renditions. Arcand has an excellent eye for the critical details that make good fiction, from the glances exchanged between Rémy and his former lovers to Rémy’s estranged daughter, who says her final goodbyes to her father remotely—she’s on a yacht circling the world, and she can’t be bothered to stop. In much the same manner as Gene Hackman’s patriarch in The Royal Tenenbaums, Rémy has been an inveterate jerk, but he only regrets letting down his kids.


But much of the film is talking, and after a while it’s as numbing as the heroin Sebastien scores from the daughter (Marie-Josée Croze, who won Best Actress at Cannes) of Rémy’s ex-girlfriend to ease his pain. Late in the film, Rémy and his friends gather at a cabin to discuss their lives; they’re amazed by the number of “isms” they’ve embraced and discarded over the years.


To adults of a certain social class and intellectual bent, good conversation is prized as dearly as good food, fine wine and 401(k) savings. If you’re one of these people, there are many good words well-spoken in The Barbarian Invasions. If not, you’ll still appreciate that Arcand has made a smart, stimulating film—even if it’s not as much fun as the lives his characters lived before they started talking about them.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS, HHH, Rémy Girard, Stéphane Rousseau, Marie- Josée Croze, Rated R

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About The Author

Greg Beacham

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