Fifty-something Canadian professor of history and lifelong womanizer Rémy (Rémy Girard) lies in an overcrowded hospital with a fatal illness. Family and friends gather, including Rémy’s estranged son Sébastian (a wealthy financier played by Stéphane Rousseau) from overseas, and Rémy’s ex-wife (Dorothée Berryman) and several previous romantic partners. Rémy and Sébastian fight painfully about Rémy’s philandering, but after a plea from his mother Sébastian decides to make things better for his father, even if they have not been reconciled.

This he does in many ways, most of which involve spending lots of money and many of which are highly irregular or illegal. For example, he arranges to have his father taken into the U.S. for an expensive PET scan that would have required six months’ wait to have free in Canada. And he arranges through Nathalie (Marie-Josée Croze), a childhood friend who is now a heroin addict, to provide a regular supply of heroin to control his father’s pain, which the hospital apparently is not able to do with morphine.

These and other extraordinary measures work for Rémy, and the process of caregiving brings Sébastian and his father closer. (Rémy’s only problem seems to be the feeling that his life has been wasted because he has not left his mark--and he gets help with that, paradoxically, through several conversations with Nathalie.) For his last few days, Rémy and ensemble move to a friend’s lakeside cabin, where the conversation is witty, intellectual, and sexually frank, and the mood upbeat and conciliatory.

In the face of Rémy’s imminent demise, all is forgiven, and others seem to gain insight about their lives. Rémy’s last act is peacefully nodding to a sorrowful Nathalie to begin the series of heroin injections that will end his life. In a final dig at the establishment, the heroin is administered through an IV provided on the sly by a hospital nurse.


Rémy dies well, the film argues. He is without pain, in a beautiful place, and surrounded by family members and friends who through the spectacle of his dying have been brought closer to him and to each other. Yet much of this is made possible only through multiple interventions to circumvent the Canadian healthcare system, which the film characterizes as overcrowded, undersupplied, bureaucratic, hampered by labor unions, and seriously confused. (There are multiple examples of doctors and nurses mistaking patients’ identities.)

The film’s values get scrambled a bit here. Early in the film Rémy scornfully calls his son a "puritanical capitalist," while contrasting himself as a "sensual socialist" who is willing to accept the medical consequences of socialism. But capitalism, as well as drugs, both of which the film links to the threatening "barbarian" of the title, are essential parts of the improved care Sébastian provides for his father. So, the "barbarians" save the day? The film is confusing on this point--and of course its particular healthcare solutions are not available to most citizens of Canada or of any country.

But Sébastian was doing what he could for his father, and perhaps the heart of the film is not political or economic, but more broadly human, in the warmly open and life-affirming fellowship that evolves at the bedside of the dying man. Even Nathalie, who at one point seems to be killing herself with heroin, helps herself back to life, ironically, through the complex process of easing Rémy’s pain with heroin.

Rémy does die well, and the film richly portrays the human side of that. [A final irony is that the militantly atheistic Rémy, who has argued harshly with the Catholic Sister Constance (Johanne-Marie Tremblay) who visits him frequently in the hospital, in the end seems to accept some version of her final advice: "Just embrace the mystery, and you will be saved."] This film would make a fine contribution to any discussion of death and dying.


Oscar (2004) for best foreign film, Cannes (2003) awards for best screenplay (Arcand) and best actress (Croze). Originally released as Les invasions barbares (Canadian).

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