February 2004 -- Given the fact that the title of director Denys Arcand's previous film was The Decline of the American Empire, that his new film is from Canada, in French, and that it includes images of the destruction of the World Trade Center, one would expect Oscar-nominated The Barbarian Invasions to be a not-so-thinly veiled attack on his neighbor to the south. While the attack might be there, it is subtle, and the film is morally ambiguous. In it, Arcand, intentionally or not, exposes the flaws both of leftist public policies and the moral decadence that tends to accompany them.
The film opens with Remy (Remy Girard), a left-wing college professor, dying in a Canadian hospital. His ex-wife, divorced from Remy for 15 years because of his philandering, calls their estranged son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau), a financial-risk manager working in London, to return to be with his father at the end. Sebastien reluctantly agrees. Remy's daughter is out sailing in the Pacific and opts not to return. You see, Remy has placed a jolly life of seductions, mistresses, and wine ahead of his family and, indeed, his academic career.
The ramshackle Canadian hospital where Remy rests is an overcrowded mess, with the halls lined with bed-ridden patients for whom there are no rooms. Doctors and nurses can't distinguish one sick person from the next. Sebastien discovers that the second floor has been vacant for years and bribes the hospital administrator to move his father there. The administrator protests, "This is silly. This isn't a third-world country."
Persistent in trying to help his father, Sebastien pays off union workers to fix the place up. He also takes his father on a bus to a better hospital in Vermont to determine if there is any hope for him (there isn't). But Remy will not stay in the States, where they might be able to better alleviate his inevitable pain, because of his ideological aversion to America.
These episodes are punctuated by Remy's socialist and leftist rants. He doesn't understand or approve of his son's work, and he refers to Sebastien as a puritanical capitalist in contrast to himself, the sensual socialist. But we see that it is the capitalist who has the resources and spares none of them to get the best accommodations and medical care for his father, in the face of the failed socialist health-care system. Sebastien calls Remy's old friends and mistresses to come visit, and he pays a few of Remy's former students to drop in on their old professor to cheer him up. He even pays an old friend who has become a junkie to regularly inject Remy with heroin to ease the pain. And he secures a cabin on a lake so that Remy might live his final days in a beautiful, restful setting. Sebastien does not tell his father how he, the "materialist" son, is easing his father's passage.
Director Arcand shows us Remy in his last days reminiscing with old friends and lovers about what a great bunch of radicals they had been, how they tried out every "ism" imaginable. Remy remembers how he tried to combine politics with lust, using as a pickup line on a beautiful Chinese woman, "The cultural revolution was wonderful." Too bad her family had suffered as victims of the Communists. Remy and his friends revel in their old sexual exploits, most more vulgar than romantic. Director Arcand seems to imply that this is a truly humane, non-barbaric end for Remy. But is it really?
One would hope that at the end of one's life, one could look as openly and honestly as possible at one's character, actions, and achievements and have nothing to be ashamed of; to understand that while one had not been without faults, that one has done one's best and tried to make the most of the precious gift of life. Remy cannot do this. At one point, reflecting on the fact that he had not published great works, he blurts out: "I'm a total failure." He cannot think too much on his career because his indulgences got in its way. As a tiny consolation, Remy's daughter finally gets in touch with him through a remote satellite link from her boat to Sebastien's laptop computer to express her love, and to tell Remy that he raised strong children. Fine, but she's thousands of miles away—not necessarily because she's a bad daughter, but because he was, in many ways, a bad father.
Director Arcand might not appreciate that he is exposing a clear link between leftist politics and Remy's lifestyle. Remy's support of leftist causes comes from the heart, not the head. But today it is impossible for any thoughtful and honest individual to evaluate socialist and welfare-state regimes without appreciating their clear failures. The same unchecked, uncritical, unserious passions that could drive one to lightly cheat on one's wife are the same passions that can keep one wallowing in the politics of the left.
Death is usually an occasion for sadness, but it can also be an occasion for the joyous contemplation on a life well lived. Yet one can only reach a happy end if one has lived the life of a civilized individual, with reason and reflection guiding and channeling the passions, rather than a life of uncontrolled indulgence, the life of a true barbarian.
This article was originally published in the February 2004 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.