Directed by: Denys Arcand.
Written by: Denys Arcand.
Starring: Dominique Michel (Dominique St. Arnaud), Dorothée Berryman (Louise), Louise Portal (Diane Leonard), Pierre Curzi (Pierre), Rémy Girard (Rémy), Yves Jacques (Claude), Geneviève Rioux (Danielle), Daniel Brière (Alain), Gabriel Arcand (Mario).
It is hard to overstate the importance of The Decline of the American Empire to the Quebec film industry. When it was made, back in 1986, the Quebec film industry was going through rough times – even the great Claude Jutra couldn’t get anything made, and was basically doing TV work before he killed himself after learning he had Alzheimer’s in 1985. Denys Arcand had been active in the film industry since the 1960s – but he bounced around from features to shorts to docs to TV work and back again, searching for his hit. With The Decline of the American Empire he finally found it. The film became the first film made in Canada to be nominated for the Foreign Language Film Oscar (Arcand would actually make the first three to get that honor – with Jesus of Montreal in 1989 and The Barbarian Invasions, a sequel to Decline which won, in 2003). The film helped to revitalize the Quebec – and Canadian – film industry, as it became an art house hit and put Arcand on the map.
I’ve seen The Barbarian Invasions of course – and Jesus of Montreal (and Stardom and Days of Darkness for that matter), but for reasons I cannot explain, I had not seen The Decline of the American Empire until now. The film has certainly aged a little bit – any movie from the past does this of course, but there’s something about the big hair and shoulder pads era of the 1980s that always make it more pronounced to me. But the film still works – it’s still funny, well-acted and well-written. The film overreaches more than a little bit with the title, as the film at times strains for importance that its shallow, sex-obsessed cast of characters doesn’t earn, but as a Woody Allen-esque sex comedy for middle aged intellectuals, the film hits its target.
The first hour of the film has its eight main characters split into two groups. The men – married Remy (Remy Girard), divorced Pierre (Pierre Curzi) with a new, younger girlfriend, gay Claude (Yves Jacques), and young bachelor Alain (Daniel Brier) are all at a lakeside cottage, preparing dinner, drinking wine, and talking. They all work at the University, but they don’t much touch on intellectual topics – although they do talk about how intellectual they are – but they basically talk about sex. Pierre got divorced because he was fucking anything that moves. Remy also fucks anything that moves, but wants to stay married. He says his infidelity actually improves his marriage. Claude talks about “cruising” – but he doesn’t get as much graphic detail as the others do. And Alain sits back, not quite sure what to make of it all. The women – Louise (Dorothee Berryman), who is married to Remy, says she knows that Remy probably has affairs, but has no idea how deep it goes, Diane (Louise Portal), a divorcee, going from one fling to another, Dominique (Dominique St. Arnaud) a never married woman in middle age, and Danielle (Genevieve Rioux), Pierre’s younger girlfriend, are all at the health club. As they swim, run, take a steam, they all talk about sex as well – they compare notes, and talk as big of game as the men do.
After the first hour, the two groups come together – and are joined by one other person, Mario (Gabriel Arcand), a lover of Diane’s. The first hour was funny, as the sex talk was witty, and the cut always to various sexual acts not overly graphic, but amusing (basically flashing to Remy sleeping with the other women – except the younger Danielle) or Pierre sleeping with the other women in her group, or Louise’s recollection of an orgy gone wrong. Remy and Louise emerge as the central couple almost by default, as they are the ones who have been together the longest, and the only couple we can compare notes on (someone is lying about that orgy gone wrong). As we head into the second hour though, the humor starts to drain away. Things at the house get a little tenser, secrets are revealed – and it becomes clear that no one is quite as jaded and cynical as they want everyone else to believe. People are hurt, relationships are destroyed – as will be confirmed in The Barbarian Invasions.
The film works because the performances are engaging, the writing is funny and Arcand keeps things moving at a brisk, enjoyable pace. I don’t think it quite rises the level that Arcand is aiming for – these aging leftists and their sex lives don’t really represent the downfall of Western Civilization as much as their own selfish selves. Arcand does a better job in introducing the larger cultural world into The Barbarian Invasions than he does here. There are some things that don’t work as well in the film – I’m still somewhat confused as to what the purpose of Mario was (but I am assuming there is one – he won a Genie for Best Supporting Actor for reasons I do not understand).
The Decline of the American Empire put Arcand on the map. He topped himself with Jesus of Montreal – and did so again with The Barbarian Invasions. Those three films by themselves will keep him in the pantheon of best Canadian directors of all time. And if The Decline of the American Empire is the weakest of the three, that says more about the strengths of the other two than the weaknesses of this one.