The Right Coast

December 30, 2003
Worthwhile Canadian Initiative
By Maimon Schwarzschild

See "The Barbarian Invasions": a film from the French Canadian director Denys Arcand. It's about a dying man, a 60-ish and 60s-ish college teacher in Montreal. He is an old leftie, raffish and rather sad, who has lived for pleasure. His divorced wife and his estranged son -- a "risk management" capitalist -- bring some of the man's old friends and old mistresses together to be with him. It's funny, complicated, and very touching. The film has had good reviews: many reviewers are calling it the best film, or one of the best, of the year.

What none of the reviews mentions (at least none that I've seen) is that it's also, and on many levels, a deeply conservative movie. The serious side of the film -- about life and about family -- is as conservative as could be. And when the 60s-ish friends talk about politics and ideas in one long scene, they are rueful and pretty disillusioned about all of it: Marxism and Trotskyism, existentialism and anarchism, Quebec separatism, so on and so forth.

The satirical, funny side of the movie is just relentlessly conservative too. The Montreal hospital, under Canadian socialized medicine, is pictured like something out of Calcutta: a nightmare of crowded squalour and corruption. There are thuggish, gangster unions to be bribed. The hospital administrator, in her closely-guarded management suite with its big Quebec flag, spouts p.c. management-speak until she too accepts her bribe. There is a six-to-twelve month (-to forever) waiting period for a CAT scan, until the family go across the border to a private clinic in Vermont for immediate service. What makes the satire devastating (it would be over-the-top otherwise) is that it's delivered deadpan, as background just to be taken for granted.

It's a haunting movie in its way. Very funny too. (For Canadian history buffs, there is a scene -- extraneous to the plot, really, but effective nonetheless -- with a warehouse full of kitschy French Canadian church furniture: unsaleable, of course. The priest hoping to sell the stuff notes that Quebec stopped being Catholic from one month to the next in about 1966. Which in fact is essentially what happened...)

"The Barbarian Invasions" is evidence for Brian Anderson's observation that conservative ideas are appearing, more and more, in various media that were long a monopoly of the political and cultural left.

See the movie.