Toward the end of Denys Arcand’s wonderful new movie, The Barbarian Invasions, a group of old friends in late middle age sit around a dinner table, ruefully mulling the -isms — Marxism, Freudianism, Maoism, Situationism — they’ve embraced and discarded over the decades. Theory has failed them, and so has Eros, the glue that once held them together, and now one of them — the one who most loved life — is dying of cancer long before he thought he would.

If you saw Arcand’s Oscar-nominated 1987 film, The Decline of the American Empire, you’ll remember these same logorrheic Québecois (both the characters and the actors, who return to play their saggier, paunchier selves) gassing on, also over dinner but under very different circumstances, about the sexual adventures they’d had or dreamed of having, mostly with each other. The group revolved around Rémy (Rémy Girard), a history professor and a compulsive, if improbable, womanizer — plump and grinning, he looked like a sated hamster. Though he was happily married to the goodhearted Louise (Dorothée Berryman) and a devoted father to his two children, Rémy’s easy charm and sensual nature made him a master seducer of women, including two in his inner circle, Diane (Louise Portal), a journalist with a taste for rough trade, and Dominique (Dominique Michel), a sharp-tongued, cynical historian. The group’s brittle post-prandial chat was all about illicit conquests, both male and female, cataloged in the confessional bragging of a generation pursuing, with feverish unease, private freedoms their predecessors could only dream of.

Between the lines they nursed nuclear fears and heatedly debated the classic indices of a dying civilization — low birthrates, the refusal to go to war, the single-minded pursuit of pleasure — and, as the Soviet Union teetered on collapse, the bankruptcy of Marxist-Leninism as a model for a better world. Arcand’s posture toward this sophisticated but fundamentally clueless crew hovered between satire and farce. But he was never censorious or, as some critics maintained, cynical. He was showing us a milieu that reflected an era in eclipse — Decline was set in a health club and an idyllic lakeside retreat — and a generation that, for all its underground anxieties, assumed that the affluence and unfettered liberty they claimed as basic rights would go on forever.

Now, barely into the new millennium, comes the reckoning. Where Decline was shot with a warm, ample glow, The Barbarian Invasions opens in harsh blues and grays. Seated at a bank of shiny new computers in London, Rémy’s estranged son Sébastien (played by Québecois comedian and musician Stéphane Rousseau, who has the doe-like looks of Nureyev) receives a call from his mother telling him that his father is gravely ill. Gathering up his cell phone, his state-of-the-art laptop and his feline-pretty trophy girlfriend (Marina Hands), he flies to Montreal, where his father, tubbier than ever and bald as a coot, lies in the corridor of an overcrowded hospital symbolic of a welfare state nearing meltdown.

Though he’s in terrible pain, Rémy still roars away to anyone who will listen, including a stupefied Catholic nurse, about history and art and the bloodlust of the human race down the ages. Rémy’s intellectual heroes these days are not lefties but chroniclers of totalitarianism and genocide — Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Primo Levi — and he still has a soft spot for Samuel Pepys, chronicler of sex. The movie takes its title from a glancing allusion to September 11 as a sign of America’s inability to keep “the barbarian at the gate,” but terrorism is not Rémy’s subject — he sees barbarism all around him. As far as he’s concerned, his son, who has grown rich doing murkily undefined things in international trade, is a “puritanical capitalist” while Rémy remains the proud “sensual socialist,” an unrepentant idealist and romantic aesthete who still flirts reflexively with any passerby in a skirt. He makes no apologies for his sexual excesses, even to the wife who divorced him years ago, and whom he still loves, as she does him despite her halfhearted rants about his past infidelities. Sébastien, for his part, feels abandoned by his father, and has chosen an almost monkishly tidy life, while his sister has made good her escape by sailing a yacht alone around the world.

Like many filmmakers who were raised as strict Catholics, Arcand loves a good rebel, especially one who breaks the rules with his body as well as his mind. As a revolutionary intellectual, Rémy would more readily have danced with Emma Goldman than planned with Lenin. Religion is not an option — like all Arcand’s films, The Barbarian Invasions is littered with sallies against institutional Catholicism. Yet the movie is a deeply spiritual work. Rémy may be a significantly autobiographical figure for Arcand, who doubtless shares the dying man’s disgust with the arid, politically and morally uncommitted world his son inhabits. But the director is more generous than his stubborn protagonist, and he sees that even if history pursues an inexorably bloody path, individuals are always capable of surprising us, not to mention themselves. Rémy and his son lock horns as soon as they set eyes on one another, yet Sébastien methodically sets about making his father’s stay more comfortable, which in his book means dangling wads of cash under the noses of crooked union officials (the dapper Arcand has an unlikely cameo as one of them) and a hospital administrator who gushes bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. When at last Rémy’s pain grows unbearable, Sébastien drafts an old childhood friend, Diane’s daughter Nathalie (played by Marie-Josée Croze, whose brooding intensity as a fatalistic young junkie earned her a Best Actress award at Cannes last year), to supply his father with heroin.

The Barbarian Invasions is a reunion movie, and while it’s often very funny, it has none of the self-satisfied piety or strenuous jokiness of The Big Chill. Its mood shifts between defiant exuberance and wistful contemplation, but it’s never mawkish. The film has the fluid rhythms, the delight in talk and food, and the nourishing intellectual richness of Renoir, Louis Malle and, in a certain mood, Bertolucci. In the end, help comes from unexpected quarters, flows in unexpected directions and creates surprising companions. When Rémy’s scattered old friends are rounded up by Sébastien for a final rendezvous at the lake, we see that in some ways they have survived less well than their children. There’s fatigue and worry beneath the still boisterous banter; some fret, with good reason, that they have failed as parents; some are lonely. Lusty Diane is now preoccupied with regaining contact with the elusive Nathalie, while Dominique, acidic as ever, gets her frissons from television. Two have found stability: Gay, ironic Claude (Yves Jacques), who can still rustle up a gourmet dinner for eight with whatever happens to be in the pantry, has abandoned his obsessive cruising and brought along a steady squeeze; Pierre (Pierre Curzi), who once reviled domesticity, has married a younger woman and fathered two girls who are the light of his life. But even Rémy concedes that “women have deserted my dreams,” and that the truly barbaric invasion may be the passage of time, which has wasted his body without answering the questions of his intellect and his spirit. “I haven’t found a meaning. I have to keep searching,” he cries in anguish. For all its urbanity, this deep and marvelously humane film — a testament to the redemptive power of friends and family — can’t let him go like that. There is resolution and a kind of closure, and every moment of it has been earned.

THE BARBARIAN INVASIONS | Written and directed by DENYS ARCAND | Produced by DENISE ROBERT and DANIEL LOUIS | Released by Miramax | At ArcLight Theater

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