In “Les Invasions barbares (Barbarian Invasions),” a dying father pulls his grown-up son to his chest and says, “When you have a son, make sure he turns out just like you.” For the son, these words bring a sense of closure and something changes in his expression. He is liberated. For the first time in his life, he feels a love for his father that’s unencumbered by bad family history and resentment. And he’s compelled to tell his father quite simply, “I love you.”
The difference between this and thousands of other deathbed scenes is the sincerity of the story that led up to it. Father and son had not spoken in years and extreme illness was what finally got them in the same room. But there, gradually, they begin to view and then to value each other, as individuals. The process is like the slow blossoming of a desert rose and even though the whole scene is defined by the father’s imminent death, the moment comes off as an ultimate celebration of life.
“Invasions barbares” has been described as a story of dying and euthanasia, but it’s more about valuing the demands of the mind as well as the body, in the final days of life. This is much more difficult than it sounds, as the film shows us in bleak sketches how the average medical institution is equipped to repair bodies, but not to listen to or recognize their needs. (While watching this, you can’t help but believe there is such a thing as death by hospitalization.)
So when the son is told his father is about to die of cancer he makes no attempts at prolonging life. Instead, he takes stock of the situation and decides that if his father must die, then he, as the son, will orchestrate the best send-off possible. Thus death is transformed from a process of patient and painful waiting into something creative, imaginative and customized with precision detail.
At first, it is a collision of egos. The father, Remy (Remy Girard), in his early 60s, is full of rage against mankind’s political mistakes. A history professor at a Montreal university, Remy had studied most of the political “isms” of the 20th century, only to feel betrayed. (To this day, he can’t forgive himself that he had once told a visiting Chinese scholar how wonderful the Cultural Revolution was. Later, he discovered that her parents had been killed because of it.)
Remy fumes against crimes like colonialism and terrorism and regrets not having written Primo Levy’s “Gulag Archipelago” — in fact, he hasn’t written a single book. He had spent most of his adult life womanizing, indulging his Epicurean tastes (wine and truffles) and being mad at the world. His wife divorced him 15 years ago, he has two grown children he hardly knows and now he’s dying.
Not surprisingly, his son Sebastian (Stephane Rousseau) has spent most of his life determined to be as different from Remy as possible. As a result he’s now a snooty London-based investment banker. When his mother Louise (Dorothee Berryman) calls and informs him of Remy’s near-demise, Sebastian’s first reaction is irritation. When he flies over to Montreal, he flings complaints in Remy’s face: “I don’t know you. You didn’t raise us. You wrecked our family!”
If Remy had shown a little guilt at this point, Sebastian would probably have left him at the mercy of the local public hospital where the beds spill out onto the corridors and the overworked staff can hardly keep track of which patient is dying or about to be discharged. But paradoxically, Remy’s feistiness and acid tongue, his rages and insistent flirting with the nurses, serve to bend the expensively suited, unbending Sebastian.
Recognizing his father’s ideological need to stay in a “people’s hospital” but deciding to provide every comfort otherwise, Sebastian does things like outfit a special room for his father at the end of a hallway, complete with a kitchen. He arranges a video e-mail from his sister (who is working on a boat somewhere near Easter Island) to appear on Remy’s laptop. He invites his father’s friends and past lovers — now scattered over the globe — to come and keep Remy company. He even secretly pays Remy’s former students to visit. And when the pain becomes too much for Remy to bear, he hires drug addict Nathalie (Marie-Josee Croze) to procure and administer doses of heroin.
Thanks to Sebastian, Remy’s days are spent among friends, the women he has loved, the mysterious and brooding Nathalie and his estranged ex-wife, who has turned into an excellent comrade. They regale each other with stories from their youth, take turns cooking and open many bottles of wine.
Throughout it all, Remy remains himself — fighting mad at the injustices of the Western social system, disappointed in his own failures but unfailingly lecherous. And Sebastian also remains true to character, taking control of every snag or problem and handling his father’s illness as he would any project that demands extra sensitivity.
Director Denys Arcand gazes at them both with deep understanding. It’s only in the end that Sebastian manages to touch Remy, and when they finally hug, it’s a gesture of love but it also seems like mutual congratulations on not having surrendered their personalities. They are who they are, and that’s something over which death has no power.