Movie Review: The Barbarian Invasions (Les Invasions Barbares)
Above: This was the kind of "barbarian" I thought I'd be seeing in The Barbarian Invasions
TORONTO (SP - QED) — Never judge a film by its title. This is my cardinal rule of film criticism. Unfortunately, I've always found it much easier to talk about this rule than to put it into practice.
Without question, my utter failure to observe the aforementioned rule explains why I was so profoundly disappointed with Deny Arcand's newest film, The Barbarian Invasions. When I went to see the film at a local movie theatre, I knew very little about it. I had never seen its predecessor, The Decline of the American Empire, nor had I seen any of Arcand's previous films. The one thing I did know about the film was its title. And with a title like The Barbarian Invasions, I think it was quite reasonable for me to have expected a big, loud, dumb action flick. Full of sound and fury, most likely signifying nothing.
Doesn't the title conjure up images of epic action-oriented films like the Arnold Schwarzenegger pre-Governator classic Conan the Barbarian, or the lesser known but no less entertaining Barbarian Queen and its unfairly overlooked sequel, The Empress Strikes Back? That's a rhetorical question, to which the answer is an emphatic 'Yes!'
Above: Based on the film's title, I was expecting a high-octane action flick
Hence, I purchased a large bucket of popcorn and settled into my seat, preparing myself for the adrenaline rush that would surely come from witnessing two hours of non-stop action. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I discovered that The Barbarian Invasions was really not much of an action film. In fact, it did not bear even the slightest resemblance to an action film, as there was not a single punch thrown, thrust parried or weapon discharged.
As it turns out, The Barbarian Invasions is really a film about interpersonal relationships, particularly between a terminally ill father and his estranged son. It's also a critical examination of the shortcomings of Canada's healthcare system. The title is derived from a scene in which an Historian compares the terrorist attacks on 9-11 to the barbarian attacks within the heart of ancient Rome which signaled the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.
Above: How could I have known that this film was actually a poignant drama centering upon the dysfunctional relationship between a father and son?
I hadn't been this disappointed walking out of a movie theatre since I saw Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead: Not a single dead person in the entire film! It may even have equaled the double dose of disappointment I experienced when I caught a Drive-In double bill consisting of Smiling Fish, Goat on Fire (nary a goat appears onscreen, let alone a flammable one) and Man in the Moon (like millions of others, I had been led to believe that this was Jim Carrey's first foray into the science fiction genre).
Above: I can't be the only one who thought that Man in the Moon was a sci-fi adventure
I cannot deny that The Barbarian Invasions was well written, well directed, and well acted, but the fact is that I expected the main characters to be delivering cheesy one-liners and wrestling with vicious Neanderthals. Instead, what I got was a group of witty intellectuals quoting Jean-Paul Sartre and wrestling with deep philosophical questions such as the meaning of life and the relative merits of existentialism.
These simply aren't the sort of things I want to see in a film called The Barbarian Invasions. That would be like making a Terminator film with psychologically complex characters who speak in iambic pentameter. People have come to the movie theatre to see Arnold blow things up in spectacular fashion, not to see him recite Shakespearean soliloquies.
Perhaps that's why I've always been comforted by the film oeuvre of Pauley Shore. No one would ever mistake movies such as In the Army Now, Jury Duty, and Bio-Dome for cinematic masterpieces, but at least you knew from the titles exactly what these films were about.
Above: Pauley Shore's filmography is like a box of chocolate-covered excrement - you always know what you're going to get
I suppose that one of these days I'll learn to stop smothering films with unreasonable expectations emanating from their titles. Then again, you'd think that I would have learned my lesson ten years ago after being blindsided by a film about corporate takeovers called Barbarians at the Gate.