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Sex, Politics, and Socialized Medicine – The Films of Denys Arcand

Sex, Politics, and Socialized Medicine – The Films of Denys Arcand


Every generation believes that the generation to follow it, and possibly the generation to precede it, will, or already has, led to the deterioration of civilization.

In Denys Arcand’s 2003 film The Barbarian Invasions, 9/11 has just recently hit American soil, and the tension between the old and the young has been brought to new light. The incoming class are the “puritanical capitalists”, as the ageing Remy (Remy Girard) explains, himself a self-professed “sensual socialist”. But now in Arcand’s Quebec, Remy is dying and stuck in the bureaucratic, underserved system his generation helped create.

We’d hardly bat an eye for the philandering behavior and lifestyle that got Remy in this place to begin with, but The Barbarian Invasions is not the start of Arcand’s story. The Decline of the American Empire, from 1986, endears us to a young Remy and his equally promiscuous friends and lovers. The movie is a talky parable that’s all about sex and the clever innuendos that make it such a fiendish conversation topic. Over lunch and exercise they gab endlessly about their sex lives, allowing their intellectual tone and effete charms to overstate just how liberated their bodies actually are.

Arcand’s thesis with this film is that the self-indulgent pursuit of happiness, with both these eight characters and those like them, has led to the decline of the American Empire. And in the end, their sexual wordplay gets real to the point that it leaves scars on their relationships. While The Barbarian Invasions isn’t a direct sequel, it feels as though 16 years later, all the consequences left unsaid at the end of American Empire have now carried over and manifested in this much deeper dramedy. The decline of civilization will pass the torch to this new generation to destroy in their own way.


Both The Decline of The American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions were nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in their respective years, with The Barbarian Invasions going on to win it. The former was labeled something of a French-Canadian Big Chill, but the subtle, ironic politics embedded within the film put Arcand at the front of the pack of other Canadian directors who in the ‘60s began tackling issues of culture and politics within Quebec. For the latter, Arcand was coming off two English-language pictures and found his first big international hit in over a decade. But The Barbarian Invasions was in fact so topical and local in its depiction of 2003 Quebec that the film was recut when it went into competition at the Cannes Film Festival.

In The Barbarian Invasions, Remy and his wife Louise (Dorothee Berryman) are long divorced after the events of the first film, but as he lies on his deathbed in an overcrowded Canadian hospital, she brings his estranged son Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) to see him before he passes. In an opening long tracking take that recalls the start of American Empire, Arcand follows a nurse down a hospital corridor flooded with patients and incompetence from the medical staff. Arcand chalks it up to a failing in Canada’s socialized medicine, although more than 10 years removed, that political critique may need some updating. And though Sebastien and his father are each cut from a different cloth, Remy a leftist history professor and Sebastien a stodgy, humorless financier, Sebastien uses his wealth in order to move his father to an empty, private wing of the hospital. He even uses his resources to pay off clueless students to give Remy a condolence visit and arranges for him to get heroin to ease his pain.

Remy then forms a bond with the junkie Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze) who smokes heroin with him and even reconnects with his friends from the first film, all of them more advanced in their lives, but all just as lewd and immature. Nathalie provides the heart to the film, while they provide the color.

In American Empire, the octet’s gradual shift in conversation from the high brow discussions of relationships and sex to something more vulgar is a good way of making the film more intimate and observational as their big talk and crumbling relationships start to close in on them. In Barbarian Invasions, the dialogue is specifically a re-tread, one that feels nostalgic and reminds the characters of their former glories. “It’s not the present you cling to. It’s your past life. That part is already dead.”

Arcand is juggling a lot of themes in both films, but they’re ultimately frivolous, witty and fun. The first is a pleasant dinner party. The second is a touching melodrama of a father reconciling with his son. Girard in particular is a pompous treat among this haute, bourgeois cast. They talk of ejaculating while discussing the historical significance at the turn of the millennium. They equate sleeping with a black guy to singing in “We Are the World”. They laugh as they recall the tale of a historical leader who died of a heart attack while receiving the blow job of his life.

Politics, socialized medicine, the generation gap, the decline of American civilization: these are all well and good, but when talking about any of them, Arcand knows that to some degree, we’re really just talking about sex.