- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 18, 2003

“The Barbarian Invasions” begins with an extended, morbidly funny prowl through the corridors of a Montreal hospital where patients seem to be stacked up like airplanes double-parked at a terminal with only one functioning runway. And you’re not too certain about the reliability of that runway, either.

The pictorial impression of congestion and dysfunction is wittily persuasive. Coming from a Canadian filmmaker, it’s also a bracing novelty. Over the years, one becomes accustomed to the sound of invidious comparisons between American and Canadian health systems, typically uttered by American “progressives” who seem to covet arrangements north of the border.

Denys Arcand, a native of Montreal who emerged as a distinctive contemporary humorist in 1986 with a satire about complacently left-wing and hedonistic faculty members titled, “The Decline of the American Empire,” reverses the complaint. It amuses him to observe that patients who need certain urgent treatments tend to resort to trips across the Quebec border to Burlington, Vt., where the equipment is up-to-date and the bureaucracy is less stifling.

Mr. Arcand’s new movie is not systematically designed to mock and scourge a medical institution. Ultimately, it’s more in the nature of a doting reunion — and, as such, a creeping source of disappointment. Mr. Arcand dotes to a fault on the imminent departure of a particular patient, a terminal cancer case named Remy, one of several characters he originally created for “Decline.”

A university history professor who specializes in the American Colonial period, Remy (once again impersonated by the puckish Remy Girard) is rescued from inertia and inattention in a Montreal ward by the generosity of an estranged but still dutiful son named Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau). Learning of his father’s confinement, he returns to Montreal from an investment banking job in London, accompanied by a charming fiancee named Gaelle (Marina Hands), who works for an auction house.

Evaluating the situation quickly and demonstrating a willingness to pay handsomely for every privilege, he arranges for Remy to get some needed tests in Burlington and then subsidizes a private room on an abandoned floor of the Montreal hospital. It’s all highly irregular, but Sebastien’s contempt for the obstacles has an irresistible humorous impact. Bribes purchase so much good will with the resident union reps that a laptop stolen by one of the hospital staff is promptly returned to its owner.

Ostensibly, Sebastien has reason to resent his dad, whose infidelities eventually broke up the family. Nevertheless, the old Remy harem rallies around, along with his male cronies and even Sebastien’s mom, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who still has a compassionate spot for the old lecher and reprobate, whom she divorced a decade earlier. Since Mr. Arcand finds it impossible to hold a grudge against his own characters, he can’t rationalize one in Sebastien, either. To ease Remy’s pain as the end approaches, the son even commissions regular injections of heroin from a young junkie named Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), the daughter of one of Remy’s former faculty mistresses.

To his credit, Remy entertains some fleeting harsh judgments about his life as an intellectual and amorist. The contrasting outlook is embodied by a pious, proselytizing Catholic nurse, Sister Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay), whose beliefs provoke Remy’s rancor.

In his hour of need, Remy is cushioned by the sheer wealth and cynicism of a son whose filial piety takes somewhat alarming forms. You suspect that a rather more sinister chip off the old block may emerge in Sebastien, who has the means to indulge whims that Remy couldn’t afford.

The haunting element in this film is Mr. Arcand’s lurking suspicion about the motives of Sebastien, who functions superficially as a benefactor for the older generation. The filmmaker hasn’t come to a conclusion about what this resourceful young man is after. When he does, the upshot may be a more revealing comedy than “The Barbarian Invasions.”


TITLE: “The Barbarian Invasions”

RATING: R (Frequent profanity, sexual candor and allusions to drug use)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Denys Arcand. Some dialogue in French with English subtitles

RUNNING TIME: 99 minutes


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