The Barbarian Invasions, 99 mins, rated MA, opening in cinemas nationwide on 8 April 2004.  In French and English with English sub-titles.

The Barbarian Invasions, a French Canadian film that recently won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of 2003, reminded me a lot of Mike Leigh’s Naked (1993).  It is not as tough a film as Naked, but like Naked it fairly crackles with witticism and political comment.

Director Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montréal, 1989) has re-assembled many of the cast that appeared in his1986 film The Decline of the American Empire.  But about 20 years have passed and the bright, witty and sexually promiscuous thirty-something university friends in the earlier film are now fifty-something.  And one of them, retired history professor Rémy (Rémy Girard), is dying of cancer.

As the film begins, Rémy’s ex-wife, Louise (Dorothée Berryman), is unable to cope. Rémy is languishing  in Canada’s Medicare system.  The hospital is overcrowded and under-funded, the equipment is outmoded, and the medical staff are harried and confused.  These early scenes are among the most powerful in the film.  The camera takes us down crowded corridors that look like something out of the 3rd world, but are in fact in today’s Montréal.  There’s some tough criticism of the medical system, both visual and verbal.

Rémy’s estranged son, Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau) is a rich financial marketeer living and working in London.  Louise convinces him to come back to Montréal to be with his father.  Reluctantly, Sébastien agrees, and flies back with his girlfriend.  Once there, he sees how dire the situation is.  Despite the fact that he is still fighting with his father, Sébastien sets his father up in a beautiful private room that he actually builds on a vacant hospital floor.  Sebastian may have earned Rémy’s contempt for his practically-focussed education, and for never having read a book, but he certainly knows how to get things done.  He can make the hospital administration turn a blind eye, he can square things with the union (more satire from Director Arcand here), and he can even procure heroin for his father when morphine is not strong enough.

Next, Sébastien gathers his father’s old friends together to give him  proper send-off.  They gather in the hospital room, and then later at a house by a lake, where much of the earlier film was set.  There’s lots of food, wine and talk about sex, but – these being older friends now – there’s no actual sex.

All the elements are there for a maudlin ending, but Arcand is far too smart for that.  The presence of Nathalie, a heroin addict who supplies and administers Rémy’s heroin, ensures the final scenes have a tough edge.  Marie-Josée Croze plays Nathalie.  She was named Best Actress at Cannes for her performance, but to me she seems too luminously healthy-looking to be a junkie.

The title refers to several types of “barbarian invasion”.  Arcand uses (yet again) the image of the second plane ploughing into the World Trade Centre to show one form of invasion (of the “American Empire”).  Rémy rails against all sorts of other forms of “barbarism”, including his son’s and his students’ intellectual barbarity.  And of course the cancer has “invaded” his own body, raising the question of the struggle to live versus the right to die.

But there’s the problem.  The movie all but ignores the harrowing process that is chemotherapy, and the heroin provides an excuse to have Rémy looking hale and hearty, feisty and witty right to the end.  It also gives the film a drug-linked hipness in the form of Nathalie, which seems dishonest.  For all their cleverness and loquaciousness, the characters don’t feel real.  It is as if Arcand is manipulating then to get across as many of his views about modern society as he can. That’s where I see a similarity to Mike Leigh’s Naked.  That film’s central character, Johnny (David Thewlis), was so astonishingly witty and cruel that eventually I stopped believing in him.

The Barbarian Invasions is funny and witty and moving .  It is an intelligent film in its  commentary on important political religious and other social issues.  It contains sharp satire and incisive criticism.  But I’m not sure that it has enough authentic humanity to match its cleverness.