Death and the City

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Review of ’The Barbarian Invasions‘, director Denys Arcand

This is an apparently simple film about a man‘s slow death, but it seems like all of life is in it. A father is terminally ill in a Canadian hospital, and gradually his family and friends around the world deal with the news, gather round the dying man, and grapple with the meaning of his life and death for both him and them.

Putting a lingering death at the centre of a film is brave and unusual in itself - our culture rarely deals with death seriously outside church. The Barbarian Invasions treats death in an unsentimental but painfully intimate way - after initial confusion and denial, family and friends spend the film trying to find ways to make the man‘s death easy and dignified. To do that they break all sorts of conventions and barely have a religious thought, presumably one reason for the film‘s enigmatic title.

But it‘s a brilliant move as well, because as you watch the film you become aware that the nature of a death can tell you a lot about the society you‘re in, and what‘s more, people‘s deaths make others think hard about the past and the future. So the film very naturally can become a meditation on the state of things.

The shape of the film is beautiful. The family is in a mess, and at first they don‘t want to deal with the dad‘s death. The father, who is an old lefty lecturer, claims not to want to be fussed over and certainly doesn‘t want special treatment, but the public ward is horrible and the doctors keep getting his name wrong. His investment broker son (a barbarian invader from the City of London) decides to throw loads of money at the problem, partly to wind his dad up. He pulls strings to get the best medical opinions, the latest scan over the border in the US, and a private room. He then sets about getting hold of his dad‘s friends, pupils and lovers, and gets them to the hospital even if he has to bribe them.

The storyline reminds you of the dreadful fact that you need a lot of cash to die in dignity. But ironically the son‘s corrupt and venal efforts create the space for a reconsideration of their lives by all present, and that leads to growing awareness that things are wrong. The older family and friends - the generation of 1968 - talk nostalgically of the time when they had ideas and ideals to believe in. The dad‘s life of shameless sexual promiscuity throws doubt on conventional ideas of marriage and morals. His strength in his final days gives strength to others in the midst of crises in their lives. Surrounded by his friends, the man who appeared at the beginning of the film to be an irritable self indulgent wreck becomes an inspiration to all.

The film manages to touch and illuminate a hundred issues without being forced. There are moments of cynicism, such as when the hospital trade unionists appear as corrupt as the authorities. But most of the performances are full of surprises in an ordinary, intense situation, and there‘s an anger in the old man and a beauty in the film that raises it way above resignation.