Denys Arcand’s sad and funny follow-up to his acclaimed Le déclin de l’empire américain (1986), Les Invasions barbares is one of the most honoured Canadian films of all time. It won multiple Genie and Jutra Awards — including best film, director, screenplay and actress at both galas — as well as prizes for screenplay and actress (Marie-Josée Croze) at the Cannes Film Festival. It also collected three César Awards and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, in addition to a host of other international awards. It was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004.
Seventeen years after Le déclin de lempire américain, the philandering Rémy (Rémy Girard) is dying from cancer in a Montréal hospital. His ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), persuades their son, Sébastien (comedian Stéphane Rousseau, in his first dramatic role), to leave his lucrative finance job in London and come to his father's bedside. The tension between the arrogant capitalist Sébastien, who never forgave Rémy for his womanizing ways, and his “sensual socialist” father is palpable — a real confrontation on all the themes that are dear to Rémy, such as society's grand communal dreams and his aversion to money and individualism.
Despite his antipathy towards his father, Sébastien uses his money and influence to secure Rémy a private room on an abandoned floor of the hospital. He also strikes a deal with Nathalie (Croze), a heroin addict and the daughter of Rémy’s former lover, Diane (Louise Portal), to provide Rémy with heroin to alleviate his pain. Surrounded by his friends at the cottage they loved so much in their youth, during their touching farewell, Rémy receives the fatal dose.
Les Invasions barbares did not begin as a sequel, but rather as an attempt by Arcand to come to terms with mortality during the illness, and eventual death, of both his parents from cancer. He spent years writing a film about a man with a terminal illness, “But I couldn't come up with a script that would be lively or funny enough,” he said. “I wouldn't want to see a film just about a guy dying. When I thought of using the same characters [from Decline], that allowed me to write a film with levity and irony.”
The film, which opened in Québec before playing at the Cannes Film Festival, played so specifically to a Québec audience that the version that was screened at Cannes and released internationally was edited by 12 minutes; scenes involving the role of the Catholic Church in the province and the character played by Québec pop star Mitsou were cut drastically, while appearances by Macha Grenon, Sophie Lorain and Micheline Lanctôt were eliminated entirely.
The political spirit of Arcand’s early films is still present, as he offers scathing depictions of the health care system, labour unions, Catholicism and other institutions. Through the symbol of the hospital, an appropriate location for conveying social values (Rémy refuses to go to the United States for treatment), and through the animated conversations of the group of friends, Arcand shows us the decline of great ideals about society, education, relationships and history.
Much debate was sparked in Québec around the nature of the film’s commentary on Québec society. The Montréal Gazette’s Josée Legault claimed the film essentially argues “that Québec is no longer worth identifying with… Québec is represented as something dark and negative. It’s shown as a dysfunctional society worth fleeing… [The film is] specifically about those francophone, Québec baby boomers who control most of the levers of political and economic power here. It’s about those who used to dream of an independent Québec but who now look upon it as either a lost battle, a danger to their material well-being, or simply as too much trouble to achieve.”
Critical and Audience Reception
The film drew largely positive reviews following its screenings at the Cannes Film Festival and became the most successful Québec movie ever in France, setting a record there for most tickets sold during opening weekend (256,000) that was only surpassed by Xavier Dolan’s Mommy in 2014. Les Invasions barbares was also relatively successful at the North American box office, grossing $8.5 million and garnering generally positive reviews.
Variety’s Lisa Nesselson called the film “A full-bodied, funny and gloriously unpretentious ode to family, friendship and the meaning of life… solidly entertaining, sharply written and genuinely touching.” Olivier Bachelard of Abus de ciné called it “a provocative film of great emotional power,” while Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “This gem from Canadian writer and director Denys Arcand moves you to laughter and tears without cheating to do it… It's a feast of smart, sexy, glorious talk. The Oscar for best foreign film belongs right here.”
However, the film was not without its detractors. The New York Post called it “schmaltzy and contrived,” while Time’s Richard Corliss said that, “Arcand has a gift for witty dialogue but a weakness for force-feeding his story with sentiment.” Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian called the film “grotesquely overpraised… shot through with middlebrow sophistication, boorish cynicism, unfunny satire, a dash of fatuous anti-Americanism and unthinkingly reactionary sexual politics.” Writing in Le Devoir, Université de Montréal literature professor Jean Larose called the film “a curious combination of nihilism and sentimentalism” that “has the makings of a soap opera.” In his largely positive review, the Globe and Mail’s Liam Lacey observed that the film “can sometimes seem maddeningly scattered and contradictory.”
Honours and Legacy
Les Invasions barbares was the second film in a trilogy described by Arcand as “a reflection on morals and life in our times,” which began with Le déclin and ended with L’Âge des ténèbres (Days of Darkness) in 2007. One of the most honoured Canadian films of all time, Les Invasions barbares became the first Canadian feature film to win an Academy Award and the César Award (French Oscars) for Best Film. It won Genie and Jutra Awards for best film, director, screenplay and actress, as well as the Jutra Award for Most Successful Film Outside Québec. It was also nominated for a Golden Globe and a BAFTA Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and was named one of the Top 10 Canadian films of all time in a poll conducted by the Toronto International Film Festival in 2004.
2003 Genie Awards
Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role (Rémy Girard)
Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Stéphane Rousseau)
Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role (Marie-Josée Croze)
Original Screenplay (Denys Arcand)
Achievement in Direction (Denys Arcand)
Best Motion Picture (Fabienne Vonier, Denise Robert, Daniel Louis)
2004 Jutra Awards
Best Art Direction (Normand Sarazin)
Best Actress (Marie-Josée Croze)
Best Screenplay (Denys Arcand)
Best Direction (Denys Arcand)
Best Film (Denise Robert, Daniel Louis)
Most Successful Film Outside Québec
Best Screenplay (Denys Arcand), Cannes Film Festival (2003)
Best Actress (Marie-Josée Croze), Cannes Film Festival (2003)
Best Canadian Feature Film, Toronto International Film Festival (2003)
Audience Award, Sudbury Cinéfest (2003)
Best Canadian Film, Sudbury Cinéfest (2003)
Screen International Award, European Film Awards (2003)
Best Screenplay, Toronto Film Critics Association Awards (2003)
Audience Award, Valladolid International Film Festival (2003)
Best Foreign Film, Kansas City Film Critics Circle Awards (2003)
Best Foreign Language Film, National Board of Review, US (2003)
Best Foreign Language Film, San Diego Film Critics Society Awards (2003)
Lumières Awards, Best French Language Film (2004)
Best Film, Bangkok International Film Festival (2004)
Best Foreign Film, Cinema Brazil Grand Prize (2004)
Best Film, César Awards, France (2004)
Best Director, César Awards, France (2004)
Best Screenplay, Original or Adapted, César Awards, France (2004)
Best Foreign Film, David di Donatello Awards (2004)
Best Foreign Language Film, Academy Awards (2004)
Outstanding Achievement in Direction – Feature Film, Directors Guild of Canada (2004)
Outstanding Achievement in a Feature Film – DGC Team Award, Directors Guild of Canada (2004)
Best Foreign Film, Federazione Italiana Cinema d'Essai (2004)
Best Foreign Language Film, Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards (2004)
Best Film, Uruguayan Film Critics Association (2004)
Best Foreign Language Film, Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards (2004)
Best Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2004)
Best Director – Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2004)