French Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand resurrects many of the characters from his 1986 picture, “The Decline of the American Empire,” in another ensemble comedy-drama that aims to be both literate and gently wise. This time around, one of the guys from the earlier movie–Remy (Remy Girard), a history professor–is diagnosed with terminal cancer. His ex-wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) comes to his side and summons their son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) from London, where he works as an investment advisor; he soon arrives with his fiancee Gaelle (Marina Hands). He then uses his contacts to secure a second opinion from a friend at Johns Hopkins and his influence to get his father a private room on an unused floor of the crowded Canadian hospital. (Part of the satire here is of the Canuck national health service.) He also persuades his father’s erstwhile buddies from “Empire” to return to Montreal to bolster the dying man’s spirits–old colleagues and mistresses, in particular. And to ease the older man’s pain, he arranges for Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze), the daughter of one of Remy’s past flings and an old childhood friend of Stephane’s (as well as a drug addict), to secure heroin from her connection and provide it to his dad.
It would be nice to say that “The Barbarian Invasions” succeeds in presenting this material in a fashion that’s both charming and touching, but it doesn’t. It follows the pattern of “Empire,” which many embraced as sophisticated and insightful but which struck some of us as thin and flippant, a north-of-the-border “The Big Chill,” but chillier. Quite simply, the bevy of characters depicted here have little weight, either comic or dramatic; to the contrary, all of them are presented as essentially vacuous entities whose behavior and banter is supposed to be simultaneously shallow and amusing but manages to achieve only the first quality. (The repeated jibes against Catholicism come across as especially sour.) Remy, for instance, isn’t much more than a philandering curmudgeon, and when he and his friends engage in “academic” conversation they emerge as utterly superficial types of the kind you might find preening and pretending to be learned at a faculty party. So the title is presumably intended to be satiric in a bemused, tongue-in-cheek way, because these people don’t represent deep culture any more than the Romans overwhelmed by Germanic peoples in the fourth and fifth centuries did. The effect of Arcand’s approach, however, is to render them pathetic chatterers, but not in a particularly sympathetic sense; Remy, in particular, who needs to have at least some tragic dimension, never achieves it in Girard’s fussy, broad performance. And Sebastian, the estranged son with whom he gradually reconciles, is played by Rousseau so stiffly that he remains emotionally opaque. None of the other figures are much more than caricatures with the exception of Croze’s Nathalie, who at least has a spark of internal conflict.
Visually “The Barbarian Invasions” has a nice surface, but the more one listens to it the more ephemeral and inconsequential it becomes; even when it ends in euthanasia–treated as a morally inconsequential act (as is the heroin trafficking and use), it carries no real power; indeed, what one feels is less compassion than relief at the fact that it’s releasing the audience from their misery, too.
By the way, the unnamed thinker Sebastien and the drug dealer refer to in their conversation–the one who said that you can’t walk into the same river twice (because all matter is constantly in flux) but whose name they can’t remember–is Heraclitus. You see, displays of empty erudition aren’t confined to the characters in Arcand’s movies.