DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: The Decline of the American Empire

Thursday 16 June 2011

The Decline of the American Empire

The Decline of the American Empire (1986) dir. Denys Arcand
Starring: Rémy Girard, Dominique Michel, Pierre Curzi, Yves Jacques, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal


By Alan Bacchus

Denys Arcand’s controversial conversation piece from the ‘80s has a unique claim to fame for being the only film to have been nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in addition to its sequel. The sequel was The Barbarian Invasions (2003) and actually won the award. The Decline of the American Empire features a group of men and a group of women talking candidly about sex, love, marriage and infidelity, like a raunchier My Dinner With Andre or Neil Labute at his most bold.

Remy, Pierre, Claude and Alain are a group of middle-aged history professors holed up in a lakeside cottage up north preparing a sumptuous meal. Dominique, Louise, Diane and Danielle are their female counterparts working out at the university gymnasium. For the boys, the conversation consists of either intellectual pontificating about sociology, history and politics or dirty and frank sex talk. Remy and Pierre are the alphas, both of whom are fully proud of their careers of cheating on their wives, despite the fact that neither of them is particular good-looking. Claude is gay and offers his opinion about the thrill of cruising for guys even with the danger of AIDS on the horizon. Yves is young and wet behind the ears, but he admires these guys for their accomplishments.

The gals mostly talk about their current and past relationships, acknowledging and expressing superiority to the likelihood of their husband’s infidelities. After intercutting these two sets of conversations, Arcand joins both groups when the gals converge on the cottage for the feast where much drama ensues.

Looking back, The Decline of the American Empire fits in well with the prevailing attitudes and politics of the ‘80s. It was a decade of capitalist wealth and power in extremes, which begat a hubris of invisibility. For the Western nations it was economic invincibility, and for Arcand’s characters it was emotional invincibility.

Arcand is devious and clever, forcing us to formulate an opinion of this group as detached erudites intellectually superior to their own relationships and thus immune to the ravages of love and human emotion. But Arcand pulls the rug from under us in the third act by exposing their false bravado in dramatic fashion. When one of the gals admits to sleeping with two of the men at the table, despite the intellectual posturing, Diane breaks down like any human being would, devastated and humiliated, stripped of all the emotional barriers that were falsely constructed.

At times the conversations are forced, aggressively pushing the agenda in an essayist form rather than naturalism. And that ‘80s fashion is quite awful, but there's no one to blame for that. There's also some politically incorrect racial references that leave a bitter taste, but the exposure of these intellectual boobs as inexcusable predators of a shameful era resonates soundly. Arcand has his finger squarely on this pulse and puts the sad irony of this most superficial era into the conversations and ulterior motives of his characters.

The Decline of the American Empire is available on Blu-ray from EOne Home Entertainment.

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