a Review of Denys Arcand’s "The Barbarian Invasions"

Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions is a satirical drama, told in the comic style most familiar to Woody Allen’s greatest works. Its time is our time: troubled waters. It’s also a rare phenomenon, an international success produced in a minuscule market: Quebec. The film has charmed international audiences with its blistering self-criticism and emotional character development. As comedy often does, it delivers some deft demystification on Canada and North America.

Nothing befits a paradise in the current Age of Lying more than some solid self-criticism. The Barbarian Invasions offers a vast array of that for thirsting film viewers. First world hospital hallways filled to claustrophobic horror; under-the-table corruption in a nation culturally distinct, one would imagine, from “third world countries”; stupendous free use of drugs; and all this mixed in with Canada’s delightful autumn feast of colors in the most sardonic put downs a North American people can still dream of saying about themselves within the confines of a National Security State.

These are only some of the film’s items that have been drawing in the international crowds, no small feat for a Canadian production. The film, for instance, is a current run away hit in Rio de Janeiro. What’s not all that clear is how much the Cariocas, like other ‘allophones’ are drawing from the film’s double narrative and dubious title. Recall that in Rio most intellectual discussions have to end with a laugh. Then again, when checking Quebec’s off-again on-again wish to be considered a ‘Latin American’ nation, chuckling under the direst of circumstances tends to back up its claim.

In fact, there might be no literary trope more Latin than irony. By settling on the title of The Barbarian Invasions Denys Arcand chose to play that card in his strongest hand. Few directors can do so with as much intelligence. Yet as a sequel to his international hit, The Decline of the American Empire, irony risks being resolved into communal sentimentality.

From 1986, the Decline had leaned heavily on the same trope. The film seemed to conquer in its gambit of depicting the cynicism tucked behind the mores and moods of a thriving North American middle class university culture. This was no longer Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, a tale in which oedipal conflict backfires into marital breakdown through professional resentment, rivalry and jealousy. Decline portrayed a world of guiltless, unabashed affirmation. Ideological ‘isms’ ended up falling by the wayside into meaningless trends. Intellectual and professional pursuits, the task of creating an egalitarian, just society, or the nostalgic lament of a failed and bygone civilization, grew increasingly disparate as the mixture of humors parted into circulatory paths.

On all levels, Decline had sex spelling redemption. Blood stayed in the veins, or left the body only in transfigured heat. This redemption revealed the inner secret that pleasure has no limit to its intensity, leaving many of us ill-prepared to deal with our very finite lifetime. In a key scene, sexual pressure is relieved within a minute’s massage. Intellectual triumph looks as wasted as the semen staining a towel. Irony carried the truth of Arcand’s message. It steered the view toward truth’s capsizing against a common ode to variations on post-coital resignation.


In Arcand’s latest film, the title leads the viewer on toward the next step in Roman history. How appreciate a step it is. As with the television pundit whose words are seemingly broadcast only to a dumbstruck hospital attendant’s ears, for many fans of Roman civilization, the September 11th attacks immediately took on the allure of the great historical periods when empires go down shaking. The barbarians had struck! Or as the pundit puts it: “September 11th will be remembered for marking the beginning of the great barbarian invasions”-but not, mind you, for the fall of the empire itself. As with Rome, the pundit sees the American Empire continuing into centuries of eventual insignificance and a despotism foretold by the founding fathers.

The two-step historical reference in the films’ respective titles may follow the story line told by Edward Gibbon in the 19th century The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire. But there is a fair bit of Gore Vidal hovering about. The specifics about when the declining period of Rome began gathers little consensus among scholars. If decline refers to the changing seat of the Empire from Rome to Constantinople after the shift from Paganism to Christianity, then it actually refers to rising power. Even so, with Rome in the projector, decline inevitably mixes meanings with decadence. This is something one finds well before Caligula in the third century, in fact as early as Nero who was close enough to Christ’s Era to have allegedly sent the apostle Peter to his crucifixion. If instead decline points to the loss of administrative control over the borders, then it means nothing less than the “barbarian invasions” evoked by the film’s sequel.

The work of irony is best loved for being inherently critical. It rarely misses a moment to estrange or distance. Irony strives to break truth’s false pretenses in order to realign it with respect to what’s real. This is not exactly what Arcand has done. In his film, he releases the bonds of social indifference in contemporary Quebec, which are already loose enough. Then he lets them edge toward discriminating against those excluded, for various reasons, from the community. The film’s perceived barbarian invasions only end up tightening society around family and communal poles so as to protect what we have in the way we are. Panic triggered by this perception goes on to provide the smooth continuity by which increased security and surveillance may be implemented on the political scale.

In film form, Arcand has found no better way to illustrate this tightening up around security concerns than by bringing the original cast of the Decline back together again under some rather unfortunate circumstances. Fifteen years later, the characters are older, naturally. Their children are now working adults–or at least some of are in some fashion. The terminal fate of a protagonist, Remy, the university professor of history and general bon vivant, has literally provoked an invasion of the circle’s lives. For Remy is dying quickly from a brain tumor.

Death, in Arcand’s view, is rarely individual and always literal. Remy has to struggle with a reality succinctly, if gauchely, put by his best friend’s bimbo opportunist of a wife as: “all sickness begins in the head and ends in the head”. As his old-time friends and family gather, the tumorless heads take the law into their own hands, slowly substituting heroin as Remy’s pain killer to finally wheel in a final fix by film’s end. Remy understands his organic state is elapsing when the pleasure of a dégustation of wine and truffles vanishes in an anticipatory paean to insignificance. That’s when euthanasia becomes the sole substitute for a life devoid of pleasure.

As part of Quebec’s post-1968 generation, Remy was and is a committed social-democrat. In the course of the 1980s his idealism never flew as high as when it was expressed over a fine glass of Bourgogne and foie gras. At the peak of culinary ecstasy, he might have even called himself a Communist. Now ill, his first ideological test, like Anthony hallucinating on Mount Colzim, is Quebec’s hospitals. Faced with soaring medical industry costs, Canada’s universal health care system faces a crisis in many provinces. Impassible, Remy declaims how he still stands firm in his vote for “nationalizing the hospital system” in Quebec. He has no choice but to intone. In these times declaring oneself in favor of social reform is quite akin to acting on it.

The fact remains that egalitarian values in times of provincial and federal government belt-tightening has ended up filling hospital emergency wards in Canada as far as into the hallways. In a long forward pan, the sick and ailing unfold as if in parting sheets. The unaffordable cost of high-tech laboratory analysis equipment forces those who can afford it to head south of the border into Vermont’s private clinics. That’s where Remy’s social-democratic body is whisked off to get a PET scan, thanks to his son’s abundant funds. In the meantime, the middle class proles back home have to put their tumors on ice as they bide time on waiting lists.

Remy’s son, Sebastien, is a golden boy. He’s a venture capitalist specializing in risk and employed by the Lloyds of London. Despite deeply harbored resentment in an inversion of the sixties generation gap, that is, a socialist father disowning his capitalist son, Sebastien returns to Montreal from his home in London to help his father in the latter’s twilight. Their relationship fares far better than others. His wife, for instance, hysterically seeks emotional support from Remy’s mistresses. As for his daughter, she remains an oceanographer at sea. Unable or unwilling to return for the fatal occasion, she does insist on relaying bits and bites of computer video messages to her ailing Dad.

With his good capitalist credentials, Sebastien performs a paradigm shift: his father now lies in a comfortably renovated, formerly abandoned private hospital room. Then, he manages to find access to a supply of heroin so as to bypass inept institutional painkillers, a.k.a. watered-down morphine. With the self-assurance wealth can bring, Sebastien initially tries accessing junk through the narcs themselves. When morality bends in submission to money, all values stand equal. Never one to over-extend a proposal, Sebastien smells the narcs’ suspicion and decides to swerve his BMW into the streets to find his treasure trove by other means. Even with the narcs on his tail, a shared university education and designer suits will have them enlist as Sebastien’s team of guardian angels.

Canadian society is tolerant and wealthy. It has allowed some wealth redistribution to actually take place. But it’s been an upper middle class affair all along. We can find a world in which a drug needs no pseudonym provided that like minds only think alike.

The Barbarian Invasions ends with Remy-the-father’s beautiful death at his friend’s luxury cottage on the shores of Lake Memphramagog, in Quebec’s Estrie region. In the fall season, the leaves of Quebec’s trees turn into a vivid celebration of color as Remy symphonically fests a dual narrative on the evolution of world events and personal relationships. These lines begin in parallel, but disturbance twists them into intertwining complexity. The moment finally arrives for those who once proclaimed the US to be Rome’s reincarnation. They can now find themselves bemused with history’s repetition in the film’ title. After all, how many of our educated class dubbed the 9/11 attacks in similar terms? By the film’s climax, though, irony will have ceased deflecting any denial that the title is little else than a literal statement on our times.

Suddenly at the crescendo of the world’s evolution, as spicily recounted by Remy et al. in typically Quebecois sallies of wit, from center stage left enters the barbarian himself. Neither the leader of the Ashishin nor of some terror group, he emerges merely as an individual capitalist, almost innocent, veiled only beneath the son’s silhouette. “The Prince of the Barbarians”, his father proclaims.


If Arcand’s death semantics are indeed rarely individual in extension, and always literal, it is fair to ask whether the title really and only refers to the cynical capitalist. Would the ‘barbarian’ reference be aiming at the son who proved his father’s values to be groundless and illusory in their failure to get their share of the monetary equivalent? Or does the title point to a revelation? Does it aim at describing anything foreign as barbarian, while acts committed in our name which provoke death and destruction are matters for sentimental sorrow?

One path by which to answer these doubts is by checking up how the film portrays what’s foreign. Upon being interned, Remy has to share a room with other patients, most notably an Indo-Pakistani Muslim man. In close communion the Muslim patient’s family is silently omnipresent at his bedside. In daily Canadian reality Muslims share public space with Jews and Christians with hopefully a lower degree of fear of being pariahs. They are apparently subject to less police harassment, controls and deportation than is common practice nowadays in Patriot Act USA.

Quebec society has proved to be a particularly tolerant one regarding immigrants-provided they speak French. The film emits fuzzy signals, though. The Islamic family lingers in the background indistinct, even indifferent in its foreign tongue, welcomed as it may be. Yet their members fall short of being portrayed as fully partaking in a communicational and social partnership. Neither Remy nor the Pakistani patient reaches out to discuss the world events referred to in the title. Nor do they have anything else to say to each other. Both may be dying. What’s more evident is that the film’s title ends up contextualized by the North American Muslim citizen’s silent presence.

Later in the countryside, the community of Remy’s friends discusses what makes up intelligence on the world historical scale. A metadiscourse on world political history is something Arcand at times feverishly strives to turn inside out, as if in a palimpsest. The professors willing admit that intelligence does not always exist, or rather seldom does. It is certainly nothing specific to our culture, if our culture can at all be said to exhibit intelligence in these terms. These intellectuals recall how during the European Middle Ages, i.e. the so-called Western Christian Dark Ages, intelligence had shifted its abode to the Arab civilization. But the space they open to offset the barbarian taint with which many media pundits try to paint modern day Arabs and Muslims is just as soon shut.

When dealing with the Greeks, we hear of Aeschylus, Euripides and Sophocles, to say nothing of the philosophers. Rome spawns some philosophers, too, but especially statesmen, political commentators and poets. Yet with the unusual self-certainty of trained skeptics, the professors provide no characters of the great past Arab mind, no Ibn-Rushd, no al-Kindi, no Akbar the Great. In the reference’s silent wake, they provide little assurance as to whether their analysis of intelligence is itself salient. When facts are borne to disprove misconceptions, it isn’t only sloppy debate to not refer to them. It simply changes nothing in the clichés that dominate much of our talk in the first place.

With the Muslim family held to silence in the film, one could hardly take Arcand’s irony at its suggestive value. Consequently, he glides dangerously close to what many Rome lovers have held on their lips ever since 9/11. These history buffs are convinced the barbarians have started attacking the new Empire’s seat. Yet with Arab civilization and history held to muted ignorance, Arcand’s irony crumbles into communitarian self-certainty. In the end, irony does little service to the director in his sequel to the Decline. Despite the cultural difference Remy declaims as making him a non-American, it is still American values and its economic system that, though it fails to save his life, at least redeems the beauty of his death.

Both the meta-text and personal relations portrayed in the film fall short of irony’s power to deliver on truth. If it’s truth that the film is aiming for, then there’s no need for “barbarians” to come aground to spur on the decline. That’s because in historical terms, any analogy between Rome and the US is simplistic at best. Even Middle East scholar, Bernard Lewis, not one to belittle America’s grandeur, emphasizes how the US has never single-handedly colonized an entire geopolitical space like Rome, let alone Great Britain, had-and nor will it under the present circumstances.

The term ‘barbarian’ was coined by the Greeks to refer to all non-Greeks. The Greeks may have thought of the latter as ‘uncivilized’, though only in their wildest hubris. For the Persians and Egyptians were anything but that. Later, just as Rome happened to be invaded by ‘barbarians’, so also did Baghdad at the height of Arab civilization. By 1258, the city that had been the greatest center of culture, science and administrative control for 300 years was overrun by Hulagu, Genghis Khan’s grandson. This fact was not missed by several American scholars prior to the Iraq invasion. Nor for that matter was the fact that the infamous “Assassins” were Arabs apparently resisting the Mongol and Turkic invasions: so many other barbarians.

It almost seems as though ever since the growing American debacle in Iraq, pundits have grown silent about history and barbarians. The way American forces overran the city may have occurred at a time when Baghdad was no longer the world’s capital. Their attack and subsequent failure to protect the city’s cultural heritage still wrought more destruction than even the Mongol warriors had when killing the last Abbasid caliph. As for the invasions suffered by the British Empire, the attacks at home during the blitz were wielded by the hands of an altogether different kind of ‘barbarian’, namely the most advanced national civilization of the time: Germany.

From the Brazilian and Latin American perspective, the term lost its innocence long ago when Las Casas accompanied the Spanish Conquistadores on their civilizing missions in the 16th century. His report to the Spanish crown is literature steeped in blood. It provides descriptions of massacres he personally witnessed. Indian nation after Indian nation fell before the Conquistadores’ brutality as Indians were either forced into slavery or massacred when resisting. Prior to the Africans, the slave economy involved Indians. It was one of the European’s initial plans for the land, a gift from the civilized. When Indian peoples survived, their populations were soon decimated by disease. Las Casas convincingly argued that faced with such brutality, the Indians were anything but barbarians, while the Spanish were nothing but their own projection.


Las Casas drew his conclusions by self-critically accusing his own society-something that neither Invasions nor much of North American art has done persuasively of late. The bottom line is not so much to press the point that attacks and invasions may be committed by those who are not ‘barbarians’. Nor is it to claim that the decline and fall of civilizations do not necessarily occur through the means suggested by the film’s title. Nor even is it really to question the nature of the 9/11 attacks-with the US administration withholding information regarding the suspected role of some sectors of its Saudi Arabian allies, how can political media analysts expect to get their hands on objective data?

The point is only to draw the following minor literary observation. When irony collapses a community sentimentally begins folding inward. Comfort may have made our populations intellectual cowards-but the true test is yet to come. In the film, the capitalist son makes up with the socialist father, even when the latter proclaims the former the real prince of the barbarian order. In fact, never have they been closer.

Death may be the great unifier of divergent ideologies. But Arcand’s film only settles on the most sentimental of personal struggles through which to point to difficult times in the Empire.

If on Quebecois soil, one can share their hospital space with a Muslim family without considering them as different to any other immigrant minority, the ‘indifference’ remains mute to any communication and conversation. Remy, the historian, has nothing to say to his neighbors. He has nothing to ask or inquire about despite the obvious and ponderous post 9/11 tone-solemnly carried through the film by Arvo Part’s sonic sibylline wafts. In light of this portrayal it’s still wise to consider Aristotle’s critical observation on how those who are without speech in a community are no better than vegetables.

So Barbarian Invasions is a film about North American society as obsessively seeking communal reinforcement. The slight difference and ‘cultural distinction’ that may be voiced by the Quebec minority is simply irrelevant in the end when patterns do nothing but overlap.

Since at least the sixties, the pop cultural world has assumed an overwhelmingly critical role in social culture, and in ripe times, politics. Ours, among the most troubling of times by both the manifest and latent decisions we are making as a culture, seem to fall out from the earshot of our musicians and, especially, our filmmakers. Writing, namely prose and poetry alike, is the art now taking back a critical edge from what the mass information/visual media had euphorically wrenched from its grasp for two decades. As Amiri Baraka wrote in Somebody Blew up America: “Who/Who/Who”?

Political statements like the ambivalent pathos of Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief, or Springsteen’s reaching out or Madonna’s twist and shout are little else than marketing deferrals. Neil Young lost ground to Dylan in his recent ‘political commentary’, which simply proved he just didn’t read enough to oppose the aerial attack on Afghanistan. Those who have yet to record their protest, just like the internet scribes, are meeting deception in an information society reluctant to let their words enter the public domain. Only the collective film, September 11, had its moments-especially when bred by the grace of Samira Makhmalbaf, who far too may North Americans take as belonging to the ‘other side’.

Denys Arcand’s film is nowhere near as ambitious as a political comedy can be. At times the film may even seek to take on too much, too fast-such as the religious history of Quebec, or even the young junky’s unlikely mood and energy swings while on a fix. But Arcand’s fullest statement occurs when casting himself as the bought trade unionist who returns Sebastien’s mysteriously lost laptop to the tune of: “What? It just turned up? ­ Yeah, that’s what happened. Someone found it. That’s what happened.” By doing so, Arcand merely shows us the hitches and glitches of a society in which money can buy everything. But when it comes to taking apart society’s structures, he confirms how the cinematic art has also been bought-unwilling, or even unable, to instruct, inform and guide viewers regarding the perennial question: What now? What next?

Beneath the false pretence of the inefficiencies of socialist or social-democratic planning, explicitly set to neoliberal fiscal constraints, citizens as rightful political plaintiffs are vanishing in a roll of bills. Is that it? Yes, that’s how it happened. Not everyone is softly corrupt, but you’d have to be a thickskulled bureaucrat, like the hospital president, to resist. For the other ‘normal’ folk, like the trade unionist himself, money doesn’t corrupt-it just gets you things, necessary things.

So it seems that just as it was worth it for some Christian atheists to remain Catholic in order to guarantee burial and a smooth glide to heaven, so also is it worth bidding on the capitalist game to make your dying days at least feel more human-or godly.

If Arcand had really meant to designate Sebastien as a Western Osama, a.k.a. the “prince of the barbarians”, very little in his film and especially its beautiful death resolution would suggest so. For the reconciliation between the “leftist” history professor and the “neoliberal” golden boy is done not so much at the system’s expense than at ordinary people’s. In this category, no one should hesitate to include the elements of Barbarian Invasions that lead some viewers to associate the film’s title negatively with things Muslim.

As for Brazilians, they have had to swallow representations of themselves as “anti-American” due to their president’s adamant refusal to support the American invasion of Iraq. From Syria President Lula even upped the ante last week when calling for the immediate withdrawal of American troops from the occupied country. By making a hit of Arcand’s film, though, Brazilians may be oblivious to the fact that their minds are being made up by others. Drawn unaware by its title, the Cariocas, like other international viewers, are connecting with a story that Arcand, after having lost control over irony, should have told otherwise. In the way he has, the communal sentimentalism filling the film from start to finish is merely a cover-up for faith in a free market ideology that only last year ending up proving its meddle in a corrupt corporate undertow fed on by a savage and self-righteous yearning for class privilege.

Freed from any barbarian subtext, Quebec would have remained a truly different place, then. In the flesh it would have proved its difference from shareholder capitalist economies. It would have shown how justified the struggle indeed is to resist against having medicare, among other elements of its social capital, be evaluated only according to the small print of profit and the crooked balance sheet lines that split assets from liabilities. If streamlined privatization is our collective paradigm to be, then a system that was once available to all-even to our recently arrived Muslim and Brazilian immigrants-will finally be lost.

Canadian philosopher, NORMAN MADARASZ, teaches and writes on philosophy and international relations in Rio de Janeiro. He welcomes comments at nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca