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The Barbarian Invasions

History professor Remy is terminally ill. Irreligious and free-loving, and with the help of his wife, his estranged son, his many friends and several of his mistresses, who gather around his hospital bed, he tries to find some meaning in the life he’s about to lose.

Canadian writer-director Denys Arcand, 17 years on from The Decline of the American Empire, reunites the same cast for a sort of sequel, The Barbarian Invasions. Remy laments the end of ‘a grand narrative’, of the influence of Marxism and the old ‘new left’. His world is invaded by barbarism – fundamentalisms, consumerism, triumphant capitalism.

The hospital is symptomatic. Canada has no private healthcare yet Sebastian, Remy’s son, ‘a capitalist prude who’s never read a book’, bribes the union chief to provide a private room in the deserted hospital basement. Sebastian goes private, too, for his father’s pain control, getting heroin from Natalie, the ‘junkie’ daughter of a family friend.

This may be a film about ideas, our unfolding history, but it’s also very much about relationships. At its centre is the slow, touching coming together of Sebastian and Remy. It’s also about the passing of generations, and the value of life. It’s never morbid, and Natalie learns from Remy’s lust for life and his vitality, and comes to value her own life.

Arcand doesn’t always get it right, sometimes – his jibes at the health service and the Catholic church – overplaying his hand. He’s a political pessimist with a profound optimism, warmth and generosity for people. This is a rare and uplifting film.

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