Louise (Dorothée Berryman) telephones her son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) who works abroad in the London financial district to break the sad news to him: his father Rémy (Rémy Girard) is now facing a terminal illness. As if that weren't bad enough, Sébastien is estranged from his father and reluctant to give up his high flying lifestyle - he has made a fortune as a capitalist as opposed to Rémy's socialist lecturer status. But Louise, divorced from Rémy thanks to his infidelities, persuades Sébastien, as his sister can't make it home due to being on a cross-Pacific yachting journey, and so he drops everything and takes his wife back to Canada with him to see if he can reconcile his differences and help Rémy cope with his final days.
The Decline of the American Empire may have made writer and director Denys Arcand's international reputation, but his sixteen-years-later follow-up, The Barbarian Invasions, was his biggest success, securing an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and three Césars to boot. It takes a far more warm hearted look at the characters he presented to the world in the eighties, as if age had mellowed his feelings towards their faults as they confronted death, one personally and the others by association. Still, there is a grumpy old man's disdain here, as well as a portentous title, explained by Alain from the first film being interviewed on a television documentary.
He uses the example of the September 11th 2001 terrorist attacks as proof the "Barbarians" are not only at the gates of the West, but have broken through and will bring it down sooner or later. There is a mood of End Times descending over this film, and not simply because the lead character is about to die. Rémy lies in an overcrowded hospital, not a private one his son is dismayed to see, and counting his blessings that he's not stuck out in the corridor, instead sharing a room with two others and getting mixed up with other patients by the stressed doctors and nurses. Sébastien believes that his money can buy anything, and he sets about bribing the staff to move Rémy to an unused floor of the building, a ploy that doesn't really come off.
What he does do is get his father hooked on heroin because it's the best painkiller he can buy. To this end he asks one of the friends he has assembled to visit Rémy's bedside, Diane (Louise Portal), if her addict daughter Nathalie (Marie Josée Croze) will act as supplier. And so, just as one life dwindles, another finds a new reason to go on thanks to his inspiration. Rémy frets that not only has he not made a mark on this world, and worse he never discovered life's meaning, but in dying he brings together not only his friends but his family. The Arcand cynicism is certainly there, as when three students appearing to greet Rémy in the hospital turn out to have been bribed by Sébastien, but a ray of hope is there too, as when the girl student feels too guilty to accept the money. The Barbarian Invasions is a better film than its predecessor and is moving, but whether that's through skilled manipulation or the universality of its worries I'm not sure. Music by Pierre Aviat.