On one level, The Barbarian Invasions sounds like a shameless button-pusher: it's about an estranged father and son bonding in the face of terminal illness. On another, it suggests something sponsored by the Open University: the title refers to both 9/11 and the erosion of intellectual culture in the West. (Nothing to do with loincloths and pillaging, then.)
Yet this is moving without being mawkish and cerebral without disappearing up its own backside. What's more, Denys Arcand's double Cannes winner balances its thematic and character concerns perfectly.
Take our two main men. ""My son is a puritanical and ambitious capitalist"," spits cancer-stricken Remy, ""while I was always a sensual socialist!"" It's a black-and-white contrast, but these are flesh-and-blood creations. Sebastien's palm-greasing, wallet-flashing ways allow Arcand to comment on everything from the laptop generation's lack of time for books to money's power to cut red tape (Quebec's healthcare system comes in for a battering). Meanwhile, Remy's rants provide a crash course in man's inhumanity: "The history of mankind is a history of terrors!" But from first 'til last, the mounting issues don't cloud over the movie's emotional core. Watching Remy and Sebastien nurse their fractured relationship back to health will have you clawing for the Kleenex.
Not that this is a two-hander, Arcand investing in a first-rate cast to play Remy's rounded-up friends and former mistresses. Their polished interplay is no surprise - - many of the actors are reprising roles from Arcand's 1986 Oscar nominee The Decline Of The American Empire - - but the comic chemistry in evidence certainly startles. Yes, this is a movie about sorrow and mortality, but there's laughter as well as tears, most pertinently at a lakeside party where everyone gathers for their last goodbyes.
Such controlled juggling should be rewarded, and so proved the case when Arcand bagged a screenplay prize at Cannes. Invasions' other gong went to Marie-Josée Croze's resonant turn as Nathalie, the junkie who soothes Remy's pain with heroin. The level-headed take on hard drugs impresses: capturing both upside and downside in calm, collected fashion, it adds yet another layer to a film steeped in wit, smarts and pathos.