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The Barbarian Invasions – the future belongs to me (but not to Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian)

Last night I actually went out, to a cinema, to see a film, with some friends. No pause button, no stopping if bored, no incoming phone calls, no life at all, except watching and listening to and thinking about the film. And then after that, sparkling conversation, in a restaurant. Very peculiar. Very delightful.

The film was The Barbarian Invasions, which was the movie that got the Best Foreign Film Oscar (just as Michael Jennings hoped it would) on account of Lord of the Rings Part 3 (and I seem to recall someone thanking Lord of the Rings 3 for this on Oscar night itself) not having been a foreign film.

Preliminary googling while I gathered my thoughts about this movie got me to this review of the movie by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian back in February, which is one of the most fatuously wrong-headeed pieces of writing I have ever had the good fortune to read and laugh out loud in amazement at. Bradshaw gets hold of the stick all right, but at totally the wrong end.

The story concerns a bunch of reunited lefties left over from an earlier film, which I haven’t seen, one of who is a certain Rémy, who is now … well, let Bradshaw tell it:

Rémy is now grown into his 50s and hospitalised with a fatal tumour in his home town of Montréal, insisting on state care and railing against the barbarians of philistinism and extremism destroying the world. His wealthy merchant banker son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), described by Rémy as a “puritan capitalist” in contradistinction to his own “socialist hedonism”, is still angry with him for breaking up the family home but is nevertheless prevailed upon to return to his bedside, and the slow process of reconciliation begins; Sébastien gets on his mobile to reassemble all Rémy’s old friends and lovers.

So far so good. Nothing wrong with that. That is what happens. But now Bradshaw careers ludicrously off the rails:

We are supposed to think that they’re adorably life-affirming, unreconstructed old scamps, but I have never seen a more charmless and conceited bunch. The young second wife of one is giggled at (behind her back) for her large breasts; her husband defiantly responds (in her absence) that she has, at any rate, given him two children and makes him “hard as a bull with a brush of her hand”. Such gallantry.

No we are not you cardboard brained moron. We are supposed to think that they are extremely imperfect human beings, part charming old scamps and part selfish, self-indulgent, home-wrecking idiots. Which they are. They are shown being charming, and being charmless and conceited and immoral, just like real people in other words.

These horrible people are exceeded in smugness only by Sébastien, who bribes unionised staff to get his dad a private room away from the other poor saps. From the junkie daughter of Rémy’s ex-mistress, he coolly procures street heroin to ease Rémy’s final hours – thus revealing the movie’s naivety about what money can buy, and at what risk.

And that reveals your naivety about what money can buy, matey, and about just how competent a competent capitalist can be when he sets to work to accomplish something. Are you saying you can’t bribe people with money, or get drugs with money? Are you saying that everyone who does buy drugs gets caught and punished? Are you saying that welfare states don’t degenerate into Third World enclaves of corruption and chaos and incompetence and economic irrationality, within which bribery – and threats, which Sébastien is too morally upright to resort to – are the only ways to get sanity and good service? Yes you are, you pompous, ignorant ass. Sure, you need a lot of money to bribe people safely, but the whole point of Sébastien is that he has a lot of money and more to the point the ability to make an ocean more of it. Sébastien is actually the opposite of smug. He is simply calm and methodical and careful, which is all part of why he is so good at making money and at bribing people.

Unlike Bradshaw, who is … I was going to say totally fucking useless at what he does, but that is not right, because he does describe this film fairly accurately, and makes his total misunderstanding of it clear for all to read, and even deduceable by many who have not seen it. Bradshaw is like those charming, charmless friends of Rémy’s. He is flawed and human, getting some things reasonably right and other things severely wrong. He thinks that this film is ludicrously over-rated because he has a completely wrong idea of what it is actually about.

What gives? Probably a political disagreement with Denys Arcand, the maker of this film. Bradshaw simply doesn’t want to be told the unwelcome truths about actually existing socialism and actually existing socialists that Arcand is so determined to face. Charmless socialists? That cannot be. That Arcand actually meant these particular socialists to be rather charmless (for a lot of the time) seems never to have entered Bradshaw’s one-dimensional head.

As for all those home truths about socialised medicine, well, again, Bradshaw just doesn’t want to have to face all that. It is hard to tell whether Bradshaw is a pompous right winger (who doesn’t want films sending the wrong message about drugs) or a pompous left winger (who can’t recognise rueful socialist self-criticism even when it is staring him in the face). A bit of both, I rather suspect. In practice, it makes little difference.

On the other hand, you can see why I, a libertarian, would love this film. Basically, Denys Arcand is saying that the future belongs to me. Arcand celebrates Rémy’s “sensuality”, and general love of life, love, sex, art, etc., just like a libertarian. But he notes the utter failure of socialist economics, and the excellence – both institutionally and personally – of capitalist economics and of capitalists, in the work and person of Sébastien, again, just like a libertarian. Arcand reckons Rémy and Sébastien can both teach each other a thing or two about life, and I wholly agree on both counts.

There is even an explicit reference to my political agenda and its relentless rise to global hegemony. There is a retrospective moment when we see Rémy announcing that because of ill health he is not going to be able to complete his teaching obligations for the rest of the academic year, and that he is therefore handing his class over to another person, a black lady academic who immediately starts talking about the “Whigs”, and about how they rose to prominence way back when. Now, nothing in movie scripts is accidental. Everything is there for a reason. You have less than two two hours, and you do not have a second to waste. So if the Whigs get mentioned they get mentioned for a reason, and the reason is that Arcand thinks the Whigs are on the way back.

So two out of two. But actually, two out of three, because the over-arching conceptual framework of this film is that whereas the future does belong to me, Arcand regrets this.

I want the good “barbarians”, like Sébastien, and like the ethnically diverse entrepreneurs by whom Civilisation, as always, is besieged – who now have to resort to drug dealing but who could do a lot better – to win. But while I see humanity slowly shaking itself free of idiotic collectivist delusions, hanging on to the good stuff that socialists at their best wanted (like great art and great sex) but dumping the rest, Arcand sees the collapse of a noble ideal, which could and should still be attempted, if only mere humans could one day become noble enough to make it work. He wants all the barbarians, one day, next time, to be driven back, by entirely charming, perfectly competent socialists, who never treat the public sector as a cash cow, and who are able, unlike our present shabby lot of socialist bunglers, crooks and parasites, to make nationalised medicine work perfectly for ever and to make life uninterruptedly charming.

And I say he’s wrong. In ten year’s time, after idiots like Peter Bradshaw and Whig illuminati like me have laid into him a few more times, Arcand may have got there. Maybe Part 3 of this saga will be called The Triumph of The Barbarians and a Jolly Good Thing Too, or some such thing. Meanwhile, he has a little way to go.

But the best art often results from unclarified political agendas, because unclarified political agendas supply genuine dramatic tension. The artist genuinely sympathises with both sides, and portrays both sides accurately and sympathetically. The unresolved baggage is the stuff of the drama. So, great movie. But don’t put Arcand in charge of the Canadian film industry. He would then degenerate into one of the idiot supporting cast bribees in The Barbarian Invasions.

There is so much more I could talk about. I haven’t even mentioned (but will now of course) the fascinating policeman whom Rémy has to manoeuvre around when buying his heroin, or the junky daughter of one of the silly socialist women (reminiscent of Ally Sheedy in The Breakfast Club but not so manic) who actually administers the heroin to Rémy, or the wonderfully sinister-stroke-comic trade unionists who are the secret government of the hospital, or the jargon-spouting bureaucrat woman who personifies the delusion that the insertion of “management” into a national health service can actually help (instead of merely flooding the place with an endless gush of verbal vomit). Or the beauty of the photography, or the regular product placement plugs for Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, or the fact that Arcand is plainly in favour of the right of the individual to die at a time and in a manner of his own choosing, and to seek and get whatever help he needs and can get from those around him, or the fact that I want very much to own this thing on DVD and watch it through several more times, and urge you all to vote for it with your wallets also.

Magnifique, formidable, and maybe even a chef d’oeuvre.

Addendum: I have just watched this advertising trailer, which is as wrongheaded in its own way as Peter Bradshaw’s Guardian review, in that it merely asserts the perfect charmingness of the silly socialists and nothing else. Maybe it was this kind of rubbish that had Bradshaw thinking that he was “supposed” to think all kinds of things which he was clearly, if you only go by the actual movie, not supposed to think at all. Not that this would be any excuse.

12 comments to The Barbarian Invasions – the future belongs to me (but not to Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian)

  • Arcand is a clear headed socialist. They are relatively rare, but you meet one occasionally. He’s someone it would be interesting to sit down and have a conversation with, which is not true of most. There seems so little middle ground in politics today.

  • There are plenty of thoughtful people in the middle, but their inherently moderate and thoughtful nature makes them unlikely to be noticed. By definition, they don’t demonstrate or smash everybody else’s property, or demand “justice” as soon as they have a grievance. It’s nice to know the odd one can still be found making a movie.

  • Tim Sturm

    Excellent review of that review, Brian.

    Just in relation to this:

    “or the jargon-spouting bureaucrat woman who personifies the delusion that the insertion of “management” into a national health service can actually help (instead of merely flooding the place with an endless gush of verbal vomit)”

    I notice it went unremarked on Samizdata that Her Majesty’s Prison Service is to be renamed
    the National Offenders’ Management Service.

    So there you go, we don’t imprison criminals anymore (how distasteful!), we manage them.

  • GoonFood

    Wow, a bit worked up about this aren’t you?

    Anyhow, the way I see it is that he isn’t “right” or “wrong.” This is the same problem I saw in school: people critique a book or film and say that THEIR WAY is the only correct way to perceive the story. Well I gotta tell ya bub, there are as many ways to watch and understand a film as there are people in the world. You won’t ever confince me that any specific view is “right.” One view might sound better than another, but in the end it means what it means to each individual, and no amount of argument changes that.

    Which is why I have always found book/movie reviews to be fairly pointless unless you trust the judgement of the reviewer. Otherwise you are just getting a bit of theory from somebody else’s filtering process.

  • GoonFood, relativity is always the easy way out. It’s all relative so why bother. We’re all neither right or wrong, so everybody’s self-esteem is blissfully safe from any kind of criticism. As if that is what truly mattered. As if all criticisms were equally worthy.

    Brian says the critic is wrong in his interpretation of this work due to the obvious distortions of his political bias. It doesn’t follow Brian is also asserting his own critique is “right” or “true”, nor that there is only one “true” interpretation. The notion that one cannot prove a critic wrong, or that attempting to do so implies one’s belief in a unique, absolutist interpretation of the work is in itself rather simplistic.

    But it’s a common reaction. If one doesn’t tolerate every other random vituperation under the sky, he is obviously an intolerant reactionary fool who needs to understand that everything’s relative.

    Funny how those who consider themselves “open-minded” are always the ones telling others what the proper way to think is.

  • Michael Farris

    The Oscar that the movie in question (which I haven’t seen but now really, really want to) is best foreign language film, not best foreign film.
    The joke about LOTR could have been a simple recognition that ROTK was mopping up, a sly reference to the bits of dialogue in Elvish or something else.

    I think there are two requirements for this rather strange category. It has to be submitted by a foreign (non-US) country and most (I seem to think 70 or 80 per cent) of the dialogue has to be in a language other than English. I forget how many films are submited to the category each year (roughly 30 I think, but I could easily be very wrong) but each country can only submit one film per year.
    Sometime in the 90’s the UK submitted a film mostly or entirely in Welsh, which was ultimately nominated (I think it lost to a Spanish movie, but don’t quote me on that).

  • Fab posting, although I didn’t enjoy the movie as much as you did — “cleaning up affairs while dying” never struck me as a great plot. But it’s certainly beautifully done. I did like “Decline of the American Empire,” the film’s precursor, a whole lot. Beautiful, elegant, funky, sexy, rueful, a simliar mix of fondness and satire.

    One point? I could be misunderstanding, but you seem to think that Arcand is giving the capitalist son a pass — the world belongs to him, so be it, and that’s good. I took the film’s view of the son to be a little different. He’s effective, attractive, and almost completely uninteresting. He’s got no interests beyond working; he’s got nothing interesting to say. If you went with him to see “The Barbarian Invasions” and went out for drinks after, you’d probably have a lousy time. I took Arcand to be saying something more like, “Well, these academic hippies certainly made a has of things, but they’ve got style, they know food and art and ideas. The new kids are sleek and efficient and it’s high time they take the reins. But good lord they’re a dull bunch.” But maybe I’ve misread you?

    Great piece. FWIW, I blogged about the movie too, here:


  • I assumed the reference to RotK as a “foreign film” was because it was made in New Zealand by a crew and cast with large numbers of Kiwis, Aussies and Brits and relatively few Americans. But it counts as a Hollywood film because it was funded by a studio based there. (?) Michael knows everything about these things and will correct me if I’m mistaken.

  • Michael Blowhard

    I think you did misunderstand me! I didn’t find Sebastien as dull as you did, but I did say that Remy and he had things to teach each other, and that it wasn’t all one way. Remy loved life, art, sex, etc. That’s in my original posting. You are right that Arcand doesn’t give Sebastien a “pass”, but I don’t think I did either.

    The way I described Sebastien to those friends with whom I sparkled afterwards was that Sebastien didn’t say many interesting things, but he did extremely interesting things.

    And I don’t just mean all that stuff for his dad. His handling of the relationship with the daughter was fascinating. When she broke her deal to be there to look after the heroin doses for dad, Sebastien didn’t just write her off, he went and got her and made her stick to the original deal they had. Basically, he saved her life. And she knew it.

    No, if I had to choose who to dine with, I think I’d pick Sebastien over Remy. He’d open up, once he realised that I actually admired and understood the value of what he did for a living. And if/when he did, what he would say would be just as profound, if not so wordy.

  • GoonFood (good name for you by the way)

    I was making a statement about the fact, which it is, that the Guardian guy misunderstood Arcand’s intentions. He thought Arcand was offering no criticisms of Remy’s friends, and this is just plain wrong. And in saying so, I am just plain right. In criticising me for saying this you are just plain wrong. Remy’s friends were shown behaving very badly, and saying some despicably selfish things. There is simply no way Arcand thought this was all entirely fine and delightful and charming.

    Your comment would be like saying that someone who said that Charlie Chaplin wasn’t trying to make people laugh had just as valid an opinion as all those who knew that he was.

    Is your comment the kind of nonsense they teach in Universities nowadays?

    On the other hand, I may have been a little too definite about Arcand’s insistence that socialism could and should still be made to work. The very title of the film could itself be ironic. Maybe he too, like me, is on the side of some of the Barbarians. My guess is that he does think socialism is still worth having a go with, but based entirely on the film itself and nothing else, I couldn’t prove that. He could just think that the “Whigs” should indeed have the entire future, but should lighten up, Michael Blowhard style. I believe that many libertarians, commenting on this film, have simply assumed this alternative interpretation to be the true one.

  • The Lord of the Rings is normally listed as a US/New Zealand co-production, on the basis that it was shot in New Zealand with a New Zealand crew but with the backing of a US studio. You may want to call it a US film because of the funding from a US studio, but if you do this a lot of other films that you think of as not being American will have to be re-classified. For instance, on that basis The Full Monty is also an American film, as it was funded and released by 20th Century Fox.

    (Although, to complicate matters, The Lord of the Rings was partly funded via what is known as “Presale of foreign rights”, where distribution companies that are going to distribule the film in countries outside the US put up part of the budget. To complicate the matters further, some of these foreign distributors were subsidiaries of US studios, although not necessarily the same one that funded the film in the US. This type of funding arrangement occurred because although a subsidiary of Time Warner, New Line Cinema is a small studio (what in Hollywood is referred to as a “mini-major”) and lacked the money to fund the films entirely itself, and corporate parent Time Warner didn’t have enough enthusiasm for the project to put up the rest).

    All this proves nothing other than that the film-making business is truly international

  • Michael Farris

    Unless I’m mistaken, the eligibility for regular Oscars is restricted to one factor, it has to have been released in a US movie theater for at least one week (before appearing on tv, just ask Linda Forrentino) during the year they’re to be considered for. Country of origin (in terms of talent or financing) is irrelevant. There is no category ‘best foreign film’ as such.

    The foreign language Oscar is a separate competition and the films submitted aren’t required to have appeared in American movie theaters in general release (though some may do so either in the year in question or later).