" Don’t you feel kind of ridiculous? Your’e the only one with your clothes on "
— [nude girl], Dream with the Fishes

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Enjoyable and funny, light and quick look at eccentric dog breeders —Marty Mapes (review...)

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The Barbarian Invasions is a surprisingly good movie. It’s a low-key affair that starts on even, but uninteresting, ground. By the end we see that relationships have changed under our very noses, and a father and son who don’t see eye to eye manage to love each other anyway. Miramax’s DVD is sparse, but the movie stands alone quite well.

The Decline

Remy and Nathalie form an awkward but touching friendship
Remy and Nathalie form an awkward but touching friendship
2003's Best Foreign Picture is now on DVD
2003’s Best Foreign Picture is now on DVD

In 1986, French-Canadian director Denys Arcand released The Decline of the American Empire, an adult gathering-of-friends movie like The Big Chill. Four men and four women, separately, talk about sex, in the afternoon before their big dinner party. Later that evening, all eight — authors, professors, and intellectuals — sit around the dining room table and talk again about sex, although in a markedly different way. In the company of one’s own sex there was honesty and boasting, but at dinner there was bickering and betrayal.

The Barbarian Invasions is not a sequel but a followup to Decline. Twenty years have passed. Rémy (Rémy Girard reprises his role), who had been sleeping around in Decline, has been divorced for some time. He recently had to stop teaching because of a cancer that looks like it will kill him. His son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) is now a foreigner — he has moved to England to work in finance — and he returns to visit his dying father. Soon Rémy’s friends from 20 years ago arrive, filling his life with all his favorite people.

Messy Love

The movie takes several tangents, notably into the health care system of Canada. Crowded hospitals, waiting lists, and bus trips to Vermont for American care almost make up for the low price of prescription drugs. Sébastien greases all the right palms to get his father a private room. When his friend from the American hospital tells him that heroin is eight times more effective on Rémy’s pain than morphine, he even seeks to buy the illegal drug for his dad.

Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), is the daughter of one of the original eight friends. A user herself, she ultimately leads Sébastien to her supplier. He hires her to buy the drug for Rémy and to help him take it when the pain flares up, sparking an odd but touching friendship between Rémy and Nathalie.

Eventually, the hospital can do no more for Rémy, who trades the sick room for the beautiful lake-view house they all gathered in 20 years ago. Here, the tribe of friends and family realize it’s time to say goodbye.

In spite of their differences during the first hour of the film, it becomes clear that father and son have finally become close — not through a magical epiphany, but through constant (sometimes combative) contact. They see the world through different eyes, but they meet on human ground. After a movie full of unlikely behavior and low-level bickering, it is wonderful to step back and see it all resolve into a big, messy expression of love and generosity.

DVD Extras

Except for some cross-promotional movie trailers, there is only one extra feature on Miramax’s Barbarian Invasions DVD. It’s called “Inside the Barbarian Invasions,” and it appears to have been made for Quebec TV. The opening to this 50-minute conversation is off-putting: a fawning voice praises the movie while “evocative” piano arpeggios repeat ad nauseam. After five minutes, however, the cast sits down to dinner in the house the movie was shot in. (Director Denys Arcand, we are told, chose not to participate.) They start a conversation, directed at first as if by cue cards. They talk about the movie and their specific roles.

But soon the conversation takes a life of its own. These people are not just actors publicizing a movie, but friends around a dinner table. And although The Barbarian Invasions holds the conversation together, sun spots of genuine interaction flare up. Rémy Girard talks about having his first child at age 47, and his castmates join in with their own stories of their parents dying, of worrying that you not only give a child a life but also a death. Maybe these people are not philosophers, but they are well read, outgoing, educated adults, and their conversation grows deeper and more interesting as the dinner progresses.

Picture and Sound

The movie is in French (there are no dubbed tracks). The DVD offers Dolby 5.1 and 2.0 surround sound. The Barbarian Invasions is not the kind of movie you use to show off your surround sound system, so it’s hard to be moved one way or the other by the sound.

The movie is presented in its original widescreen (2.35:1) aspect ratio, enhanced for 16x9 TVs. The transfer to video is crisp and clean, as you’d expect with a film only 6 months old.