Very much reminiscent of The Big Chill, The Barbarian Invasion is a story of the lives and ideals of a group of friends looked upon in retrospect. Lauded in Canada, where it was produced, as the best film of the year, the film tells a wonderful story about love, sex and aging. Set in Montréal, the film recounts the final days in the life of Rémy, a dying French-Canadian Bohemian and historian.
The film markets itself primarily as the story of Rémy’s reconciliation with his estranged son, Sébastien, who had broken ties with the Rémy—a self-described “sensual socialist”—by pursuing a career in international banking. Sébastien appears onscreen as the pure embodiment of the corporate lifestyle: he always wears expensive suits, he carries and spends a lot of cash and he is never without his cell phone.
Rémy, in contrast, is uninterested in this lifestyle and the material comforts it brings; his interests for the most part lie in only two places: history and women. Whereas Rémy takes life slowly and enjoys its small pleasures, Sébastien’s life is one of speed and high-stakes.
Predictably enough, one of the major plot twists is that Rémy and Sébastien grow to be more like one another. In his efforts to make his father more comfortable in his final days, Sébastien starts to appreciate his father’s way of life. In turn, Rémy finally learns to appreciate his son for who he is and actually takes the trouble to try and understand the value and meaning in Sébastien’s work and lifestyle. Although this seems to be an all-too-familiar plotline, the film neither presents it in a particularly hackneyed manner—there are no miraculous changes of heart or vocation—nor does it emphasized as the most significant aspect of the film.
Also joining Rémy in his hospital room are several friends from his youth. Among those present are his ex-wife, two of his former mistresses, an old friend who has become a family man with a very young wife and two daughters and a gay friend who brings his Italian lover. Together they reminisce about old times and slowly they realize how, over the years, they have each compromised their principles little by little, until they are barely recognizable as the people that they once were.
In The Big Chill, all the characters eventually dismiss their principles and beliefs as simply being a part of youth and accept conservatism as a part of adulthood and having a family. In this film, however, the characters merely mourn the loss of their youth and the changes that have taken place since their youth.
This focus is especially poignant because 17 years ago Denys Arcand directed a film entitled The Decline of the American Empire, starring the same actors as Rémy and all his friends. With the reintroduction of these characters, Arcand crafts a comparison between the atmosphere among the youth of French Canada in the mid-’80s and that of present day.
The characters bemoan the loss of values among contemporary youth—Rémy’s former history students come to visit him in the hospital, but only because Sébastien pays them to—and a devaluation of the past which they blame upon the uncivilized and barbaric influences of a changing world.
Ultimately, however, Invasion of the Barbarians is about love, lifelong bonds and their importance in life, no matter the circumstances. The redeeming factor in all of the characters’ lives is the love they share with another. The film expresses this idea sincerely and without excessive sentiment, carefully toeing the line that separates the sappy from the sublime.