For Rémy -- the arrogant, didactic, philandering history professor and bon vivant we first met 17 years ago in The Decline and Fall of the American Empire -- the world is coming to an end.
Not the whole world. Just his world. But to Rémy, it's the only one that counts. He has a mass on his brain, and there's nothing the doctors can do to save him. So he announces to his impassive students that he can't complete the term, then he goes to die in a crowded hospital among the suffering throngs of socialized Canadian medicine.
For reasons that are never quite clear -- and that are certainly as unfathomable as life itself -- Louise still considers Rémy to be her great love, despite his myriad affairs and their long-ago separation. So she calls their son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) home from London, where he's an international financier, to help easy Rémy through his end of days. Sebastian brings three important things with him: his cell phone, his laptop, and his fiancée, GaÃ«lle, who works for Christie's, and with whom Rémy begins to flirt the moment she enters his room. What Sébastien doesn't bring is very much compassion for a nasty old bear of a man who doesn't seem to deserve it anyway.
This is the setup for The Barbarian Invasions, one of the most satisfying art-film sequels since Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films. The French Canadian writer/director Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal) made the erudite Decline and Fall of The American Empire in 1986, when Rémy (played then and now by Rémy Girard) and his academic friends were in their 30s, and so naturally filled with piss, vinegar, grand notions, dope and one another's fluids. Now they're all 50-something, and Rémy is dying young, which almost seems fair considering how much living -- that is to say, sex -- he's packed into his 53 years.
Arcand's beautifully rambling film is almost too much to absorb at one sitting. It's not really complex, difficult or disorganized; it's just filled with a volley of dialogue and ideas, and with little narrative asides that are almost as interesting as the central story of Rémy's difficult reconciliation with Sébastien, and also with his own life, for which he hasn't yet found a more recondite meaning than the aggregate of its events.
Arcand begins Barbarian Invasions with a quick critique of Canadian medicine: After a prologue with Sébastien in London, the movie cuts to an exhilarating trip, shot in one long take, down the packed hallway of the hospital where Rémy lies in a room surrounded by half a dozen noisy other patients and their kin. He needs a PET scan of his brain, but the waiting list is six months. So Sébastien, who arrives with a wallet thicker than his leg, takes Rémy to Vermont, where the scan confirms his fate.
If Rémy would agree to go to an American hospital and let Sébastien pay for his care, he might get a few more months out of his life. But the erstwhile Marxist refuses, saying: "I voted for Medicare. I'll accept the consequences." Fortunately this cash-strapped hospital has an entire upper floor that goes unused because nobody can afford to paint the walls or buy equipment. "We're not in the Third World," says a perturbed hospital administrator to a complaining Sébastien, who offers to rehab a dilapidated room for his father.
But Arcand isn't so sure, and soon Sebastian strikes a deal with a strong-arm labor union to remodel some space into a cozy private hospice for Rémy and his friends, all played by the same actors from American Empire, and all still eager to engage in the discourse of Academe ("is there an -ism we haven't worshiped?"), the badinage of old friends and, just before Rémy's end, one last doped-up reminiscence about fellatio of yore.
What you take from all of this depends upon how willing you are to see the lives of some gently privileged academics as representing the whole of human experience. Arcand reminds us that it's easier to die if you have money and harder if you have too much education. His movie contemplates how the generations have changed: In their prime young adulthood, Rémy and his friends used drugs, eschewed wealth and came through it just fine. But Sébastien spends too much time on the phone brokering deals, and when he needs some heroin to ease Rémy's increasing pain, he turns to Nathalie, an old childhood friend who's now a quivering addict.
In one quirky subplot, Sébastien first asks a cagey young police detective to help him find some drugs, and the cop later follows him to the home of Nathalie's dealer. Here Arcand seems to want to critique his country's libertarian duality, although he doesn't miss a chance to take a few cultural jabs at the Lower 48.
Arcand films the early part of Barbarian Invasions with a prickly wit and the latter part with all the sobriety that must accompany the greatest lesson of all (that's why we save it for last). His title is a metaphor for the ironic tide of history and the inexorable change it brings. And although his climax is intellectually soft, it's very emotionally satisfying. In French, with subtitles.