By coincidence I watched this motion picture the afternoon following a memorial service for a dear friend who had died in her early fifties of cancer. Several hundred of her family and friends had gathered to pay their tribute. The occasion was a death, but the event was a joyous celebration of life.
The French-Canadian release, "The Barbarian Invasions," directed by Denys Arcand, deservedly won the Academy Award for Best Foreign-Language Film of 2003. In the story, family and friends gather around a man in his early fifties who is dying, presumably of cancer. The occasion is death, but the movie is a joyous celebration of life.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the movie is that doesn't try to provide facile answers to life's biggest questions. Instead, it presents real people behaving in real ways, each with his or her own problems, solutions, and philosophies, and lets the viewer decide how to account for the various values presented. In other words, the movie is not preachy. Indeed, the movie suggests more conflicts in life than it even attempts to solve, leaving much personal interpretation to the individual watching the picture. But isn't this what life is really like? Or do you know somebody who thinks he or she has all the answers? Tell the person to run for office. Heaven knows the world could use a little guidance.
The "Barbarians" of the title refer to a number of things in the picture, not the least of whom are some of the people in the life of the grumpy main character, Remy (Remy Girard), the dying man. He's a former college professor who had to give up his teaching post due to ill health and now, on his deathbed, is questioning whether his entire existence was worth the trouble. He's a man who lived for lust and letters, a womanizer and an intellectual, a philanderer whose wife kicked him out fifteen years earlier for having various mistresses and who hasn't spoken more than a few words to his son in years because, as he says, the son has never read a book.
Remy and his son represent two different worlds. Remy pursued thought and ideas and women; his son, Sebastian (Stephane Rousseau), pursued money and materialism. Sebastian majored in business administration and mathematics in college, became a wheeler-dealer, a stock-market manipulator, a merger fixer, earning in a month what his dad makes in a year. While Remy lives by his books and his ideas, Sebastian lives by his cell phone and computer. They have little in common, but when the father is dying and in need of physical comforts that the Canadian health service can't provide, it's Sebastian's money that comes to dad's aid.
Sebastian bribes the hospital to put his father in a private room, bribes the hospital staff to furnish the supplies and attention Remy needs, even buys the illegal heroin his dad requires to ease his pain and suffering. So, what's the film's verdict on materialism? There are no easy answers.
Among the other folk who show up to comfort Remy in his last days are his wife, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who still loves him despite throwing him out; Sebastian's fiancée; two very close, gay male friends; a crony and former colleague, with his new, young wife; a daughter who is sailing around the world and can only be reached by satellite computer hookup; two former mistresses; and the junkie daughter of one of the mistresses. It's a diverse group of people representing a diverse number of lifestyles, who have one very important thing in common: They're all friends, most of the time showing one another mutual respect and understanding. Which comes, eventually, to include the father and son.
But Remy doesn't quite understand what a good life he's had and says, instead, that he regrets not having lived more extravagantly. He is also more than a little cynical in his declining age, explaining that "the history of mankind is a history of horrors," citing not only the holocaust and wars of the twentieth century but the killing of millions of Native Americans in the sixteenth century, when the first of the "barbarians" invaded the Americas. Yet it is these very European barbarians who made him the man of letters he was to become. No easy answers.
Remy tries to cling to his past life, the women, the wine, the trips, the books, the philosophies, the "-isms," and has pretty much given up on the present. Then he begins to understand that his life had a serious impact on everyone around him, just as they had an impact on him. It's a modern variation on "It's a Wonderful Life," updated to a more ironic, postmodern sensibility.
It takes him a while, but Remy discovers that money and sex and learning, even love, seldom last, but that friendship is forever. By the end of the film, Remy's passing is almost an afterthought; but the innate goodness of people lingers on.
Thanks to an anamorphic (enhanced) transfer and fairly high bit rate, the video quality of this DVD release is among the best I've seen in quite some time. The screen size measures about a 1.75:1 ratio across a normal TV, pretty close to its theatrical-release size of 1.85:1, with some small loss on the home screen due to overscanning. Deep solid colors, rich in texture and sharp in definition, highlight the visual delights. Little or no grain is present, and only occasionally does a frame look too dark. The overall impression one gets is of complete and utter naturalness and realism. Very nice.
The disc's audio is not quite so impressive as its visuals, but understand this is a completely dialogue-driven story so one should not expect "Star Wars" sonics. The Dolby Digital 5.1 reproduction makes its presence known early on, however, as the co-stars walk down a hospital corridor and hospital sounds surround not only them but us: people coughing, machines beeping, footsteps approaching and retreating. Speech is clear and audible at all times; background noise is nonexistent; and, when needed, the front-channel stereo spread is impressively wide. This is a subtle but effective use of all five channels to further the ends of a motion-picture story and not to draw attention to the sound itself.
The disc is unusual in that it comes with essentially only one extra item, but that item is worthwhile enough to fulfill the ambitions of half a dozen garden-variety audio commentaries and making-of featurettes. The item is a fifty-minute documentary called "Inside the Barbarian Invasions." Not a typical documentary where the cast and crew praise the film and tell you what it means, this one finds the cast and crew, mostly friends and relatives, having dinner together and discussing their personal views on the nature and purpose of life, never trying to answer life's questions but posing their own questions and thoughts about them. It's a fascinating glimpse behind the film that complements the story's ideas perfectly. Other than that, there are a meager fourteen scene selections, animated, however; French as the only spoken language available, with English subtitles and English closed captions.
It's difficult to explain how a film about dying can be so rewarding and so moving as this one, except to say the film is more about living than dying. Remy is afraid of death, to be sure, but his only regret is that he didn't live extravagantly enough during the short time he was here. It's not a film that advocates profligacy, lechery, materialism, or imprudent license, mind you, but one that champions a wholehearted yearning for the best life has to offer: love, food, books, music, art, philosophy, religion, travel, thought, letters, ideas, and, above all, friendship.
"The Barbarian Invasions" is an intelligent and touching look at what we all take for granted: Life and living.