The English premiere of Denys Arcand’s The Barbarian Invasions was released Sept. 4 at the Toronto Film Festival. It won two prizes last May at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, including for the best script. This new film is a sequel to The Decline of the American Empire, produced in 1986, that was an Oscar nominee for best foreign movie.
Whereas The Decline was an essay about the hedonistic decadence of Quebec intellectuals who were working in a department of history, The Barbarian Invasions faces the terrible question of death. One colleague of the department, Remy, is dying of cancer. Jokes about women, sexuality and good wines are no longer appropriate in this context. They cannot be an answer to death. Those babyboomers must face the finality of life and, thus, the meaning of life. In a tragic declaration while on his way to absorb a lethal dose of heroin, Remy recognized the fundamental failure of his life and of his generation: “Yes, but me, me, I will not be there! I will disappear for ever! If at least I had learnt something. I tell you, I am powerless as I was the day when I was born. I have not been able to find the meaning. It is what we must seek.”
The great strength of the movie is its honesty and its realism; it is a realistic portrait of the post-modern, nihilistic Western world. Arcand does not try to preach about the virtues of the babyboomers. Like Quebec essayist Francois Ricard, he tells the terrible and sad truth about his generation. Though the action is in Quebec, with a harsh criticism of its health system, it is a portrait of the whole Western world. The movie has a universal value and relevance. Quebec is, however, an interesting laboratory. On the path of decadence, it is the most advanced society with the highest levels of the symptoms of the culture of death: divorce, children born out of wedlock, abortion, drugs and homosexuality.
The answer of Arcand to that world without meaning, that nihilistic society, is cynicism. At the end of the movie, near a campfire, Remy and his friends laugh about their illusions in the 60s. They adopted all the popular ideologies of that time: Marxism, Trotskyism, Maoism, structuralism, feminism, etc. Claude, the homosexual professor who has a sinecure in Rome, adds: “cretinism.” Euthanasia is itself a cynical and nihilistic “solution” for Remy.
The last value in that world without meaning, without families, without deep and serious commitment, is friendship. Around Remy at the moment of his death, his friends of the history department are all there to almost celebrate it in a Stoic tradition. After the Decline, Remy’s wife obtained a divorce because Remy was sleeping with all his students and colleagues. For a few nights of excitement, he ruined his life and the life of his family. His children, particularly his son Sebastien, had suffered greatly from this separation and had never forgiven him. With his fiance, Sebastien wants to found a solid family, contrary to his irresponsible father. This contrast between the new generation, Generation X, and the babyboomers is an important and encouraging element of the movie. Having seen the catastrophic results of their parents, the new generation will not commit the same fundamental mistakes.
Arcand dedicated this movie as a legacy to his adopted Chinese daughter. Without her, he admitted, he would not have had the inspiration and the moral strength to make this film. The grace of a child in his life is at the source of this film. With a child, old narcissistic values are changing. Fundamental questions are then arising. More deeply, Arcand confessed in an interview after the launching of The Barbarian Invasions in French last May, that he lost his Christian faith while he was a young adult and that nothing had ever replaced that void in his life.
That is perhaps the most fundamental and ultimate question raised in the masterpiece: the question of God or, more precisely, the question of the absence of God in our world today. What will hold our principles if God does not exist and if He is not the centre of our civilization, of our moral life? God would be the real answer to Remy in his quest for meaning. Unfortunately, the God of his youth, of his old Catholic faith, seems too far to be the answer.
Remy’s failure is the image of a society that forgot the God who is the giver of life, the only source of happiness and meaning.