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‘Barbarian Invasions,’ an emotional wallop

Intellectual banter gives way to surprising warmth in this follow up to 'Decline of the American Empire'
/ Source: The Associated Press

“You should never trust a junkie,” says Nathalie, a heroin addict who becomes the unlikely heroine of “The Barbarian Invasions.” “They make a habit of lying.”

But the actress playing Nathalie, Marie-Josee Croze, has a directness that’s so irresistibly refreshing, it’s hard not to be taken in by her and even root for her to succeed.

Her performance is just one of the many disarming elements of Denys Arcand’s film. The Canadian writer-director’s follow-up to his 1986 film “The Decline of the American Empire” is a deceptively complex mix of history and politics, friends and family, life and death.

If you can get past the characters’ sometimes smug intellectual banter, the rewards are worth it. “The Barbarian Invasions” proves itself to be a film of surprising warmth, with an emotional wallop that sneaks up on you.

Fiftyish history professor Remy (a powerful Rémy Girard) is lying in a Montreal hospital bed, dying of cancer. He’s resigned to being neglected in the cramped room he shares with several other patients because, as he says, he’s a socialist and he voted for Medicare.

His ex-wife, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), still hasn’t entirely forgiven him for his myriad indiscretions. Nonetheless, she summons their financier son, Sebastien (Stéphane Rousseau), from his cozy capitalist cocoon in London to stand by his father’s side during his final days.

Although he and Remy have been estranged for years, Sebastien is a doer, and doesn’t hesitate to pay off whomever he must to set his father up in a spacious private room. Soon, old friends and ex-girlfriends have gathered from around the world to sip champagne and verbally spar about everything from movie stars to Marxism.

Echoes of Sept. 11The clever Arcand creates these spirited chats (which you will either love or hate, depending on your political leanings) to disseminate his own beliefs; the title is a reference to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. But it’s also a means of allowing his characters to avoid discussing what’s happening in front of them: the deterioration of their dear friend.

The discussions aren’t enough to distract Remy from his own worsening pain, however. For help with that, Sebastien seeks out Nathalie, a childhood friend and the daughter of one of his father’s former mistresses. They forge a sort of unholy alliance that serves everyone’s purposes: He’ll support her heroin habit if she’ll score some for his dad, too, and show him how to use the drug.

Once Nathalie shows up and starts smoking heroin with Remy, then shooting it in his veins, the film takes a dark turn, even though Remy is giddily buzzing. Because as he lays dying, it becomes obvious that everything that preceded was an elaborate construct — a device to let you get to know these characters and really come to care about them without even realizing you’re doing it.

His last supper at the lake house where he’s retreated to die, which has a “Big Chill” feel to it, is marvelously subtle. And his last good-byes are emotionally wrenching without being maudlin — a hard balance to strike.

Nathalie’s final moments with Remy are especially poignant, because it’s clear that even through her brief exposure to him, her life has changed for the better. Remy trusted this junkie, and they both benefited from the friendship. The audience does, too.