The Decline of the American Empire
aka Le déclin de l'empire américain
Reviewed in July 2011 / Click Here to Comment
Director: Denys Arcand. Cast: Rémy Girard, Dorothée Berryman, Dominique Michel, Louise Portal, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Geneviève Rioux, Daniel Brière, Gabriel Arcand. Screenplay: Denys Arcand.
Twitter Capsule: As is Arcand's wont, full of spry but smug chatter, only half-ironized

Photo © 1986 Corporation M&M/Cineplex Odeon Films
The thought is as assertive as it is improbable, should you view the opening film of the 1986 Directors' Fortnight in conjunction with Andrei Tarkovsky's center-ring Palme competitor. The Decline of the American Empire, against all surface impressions, is Denys Arcand's version of The Sacrifice, his vision of the end of society as we know it, only the world here is not hijacked by a major military-terrestrial event and then forced to test a leap-of-faith theological solution. There is no bang and, until the end, no whimpering. Instead, "the world"—as crystallized around a narrow caste of gabby characters, which is also true in The Sacrifice—steadily dissipates into endless, genial, self-flattering chatter about the elusive summits of sexual gratification and the intellectual erotics of being peppy, informed, safely saucy, and right about everything.

Of course, the end of days is an inaugurating, semi-facetious conceit for Arcand's movie and not its core preoccupation. At the outset, a history professor named Dominique (Dominique Michel) is being interviewed by a lower-rung colleague named Diane (Louise Portal) about her recent academic tome, which argues that one proven symptom of a major culture's imminent collapse is a distracting, frivolous preoccupation with personal happiness. The interview goes on five minutes longer than planned because Diane's other intended subject, Milan Kundera, has failed to materialize; this is an early sign of how vigorously Arcand will name-check authors, artists, issues, and peccadilloes in which a self-consciously highbrow audience will be thrilled to see itself reflected. A longer interview does not, however, motivate a more strenuous debate, and as Dominique and Diane move to a health-club for a workout date with two other friends, the irony, if you could call it that, becomes obvious: these women's anecdotes about sexual fears, uncertainties, and thrills wholly embodies that merry, complacent narcissism that Dominique's book high-mindedly warns about. Louise (Dorothée Berryman), the middle-aged wife of a colleague of Dominique's, is an eager participant in all the confidiing, kvetching, and kvelling, though she is perhaps more entranced by gossip than by grand historical theses. The fourth participant is a young student named Danielle (Geneviève Rioux), who is sometimes embarrassed by the trading of bedroom experiences but, as we find out later, is highly and comically aroused by pre-Medieval history and its ramifications upon the present.

Danielle is included in this foursome because she is dating Pierre (Pierre Curzi), yet another faculty member in the same History Department as Dominique and as Louise's husband, Rémy (Rémy Girard). At the same time that Dominique, Diane, Danielle, and Louise gab brightly at the gym about orgies, same-sex attractions, sado-masochism, penis size, dark-skinned lotharios, and the travails of fidelity, Pierre and Rémy loiter in the kitchen of a lakeside rambler. They are conversing about most of the same topics with Alain (Daniel Brière), who I think was a current student in the department, and Claude (Yves Jacques), an attractive, mustachioed gay man whose connection to the others I either didn't know or have already forgotten. He is, of course, principally there to inject some diversity of experience into these sex-obsessed discussions, sharing some tales that only confirm what a bunch of straight buddies in the 1980s (and a straight writer-director in the 1980s) would likely believe about gay sexuality, and then to stand by as these lonely, frustrated, or incorrigibly unfaithful pals of his profess envy that gay guys really do have it best. To be sure, you don't believe for a second that anyone would trade places with him, especially since we know, as they do not, that when he occasionally excuses himself from the kitchen where he, of course, is the main cook, he is pissing some fake-looking, raspberry-colored blood into the toilet bowl.

The first half of The Decline of the American Empire cross-cuts between the men's and the women's conversations, sometimes underscoring the overlaps in their biases and discontents, sometimes gently ribbing them for being so wrong in what they believe about each other, and sometimes because Arcand is simply stymied as to how he might vary or actually dramatize the rudimentary structure he has devised for his talkfest. Occasionally, one of the characters experiences a flashback that she or he doesn't describe or doesn't tell the whole truth about, so that we glean some insider tidbits about who in this group has cheated with whom. Here, at least, Decline induces some critical distance from the perky, lascivious, and not at all daring conversations that expand and expand to achieve feature length. Such welcome distance also materialzes when Arcand allows Claude a private moment of weakness and fear, out of view but still within earshot of his pals. True, I resented the mid-80s axiom that the gay guy has the secret and tragic ailment, though not necessarily The Ailment. Still, in that moment, Decline accesses the scary hollowness of other people's overheard conversations when you find yourself gripped by a problem of genuine stakes. Even better, the movie achieves this effect through blocking and scene construction, not by taking easy, editorializing swipes against the characters and their interests. It's all very Glenn Close weeping in the shower, and Arcand has clearly idolized The Big Chill while imagining he is making a more "political" film. But in both cases, if only by contrast to what surrounds them, the scene works.

Still, even if its generosity toward its characters serves the movie well in certain contexts, Decline stands badly in need of more critical edges, less because I take exception to what these folks care about or how they talk than because Arcand seems both unwilling and unable to impose any dramatic or aesthetic frame on any of this. When he finally gets around to working up some narrative tension, the moralistic charge is so intense, and so out of keeping with what we've been listening to for 90 minutes, that the film presents only two options for how to react: either Decline is much more hypocritically invested in one bourgeois, hetero, couple-defined version of love than it has pretended, or Decline is trying to score an ironic coup for calling out the characters on this very hypocrisy, which the film does not intend to endorse. The former option is lamely conservative, and could be easily achieved in half the time, with a quarter of the indolent, garrulous self-indulgence. The latter option fails because it's so utterly predictable, and rather than dig into the implications of a character confessing something halfway dangerous, or demonstrating well-hidden vulnerabilities insofar as this confession impacts its auditors, the movie simply ends.

As in the worst sort of love-match, then, Decline is thrilled to enjoy the small-talk and the sunny times but it sprints out the door once real trouble is afoot. Even the few, post-script moments that follow this scene of conflict are afforded to a private, decorously worded, visually sentimentalized exchange about Claude's illness, scripted to imply a natural alliance between two characters whom the film clearly perceives, however fondly, as perverts. This is consistent with how everything else in the movie is solidly pitched toward upper-middle-class straight marrieds who are asked to take no more than a touristic, insincere interest in where else one's libido might travel, and how it might behave when it gets there. I suppose it is preferable for a token gay character to whisper about his hardships to a fellow weirdo than to offer a silent shoulder for a wrecked housewife to cry on, but as it turns out, Claude soon gets stuck doing both, as though one buys him the privilege of the other.

The Decline of the American Empire is so cheerfully, endlessly patient with the fears, reflections, and foibles of its cast that it seems like a kind of affirmative-action program for a group it imagines to be under-represented: loquacious scholars whose way of speaking and relating, involving de rigueur asides about Susan Sontag, Russian cooking, and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, make them sound and feel like an endangered species, even though their beliefs, behaviors, and emphatic privileges clearly prove otherwise. Different audiences will have different reactions to what passes here under the auspices of comedy, tragedy, friendship, crisis, thought, and evasion. The film was a major hit in its day, particularly but not only in its Canadian homeland, which proved the existence of an audience demographic eager to be portrayed, spoken to, and gingerly entertained in exactly this way. What that success also proves is that what Arcand has devised is a kind of Nia Vardalos movie in tenured-faculty clothing: Our Big Fat Bourgeois Salon. Like Vardalos' sleeper hit, which made a "specific" culture commercially palatable by making everything else in the film as general and as primitive as possible, The Decline of the American Empire trades only in the crudest of ironies and screenwriting mechanics: the truth-telling outsider, the chatterbox reduced to plaintive moans, the kitchen-bound men and the body-honing women, the terror of cinematic style, the secondary caricatures who are drawn so broadly they allow the central caricatures to pass as legitimate characters. It's usually embarrassing when Arcand gets any visual idea besides "frame as many characters as possible" or "now cut to a close-up." The opening shot of a Vietnamese student, the endless credit-sequence tracking shot down an anonymous corridor, and a proudly sustained, hilariously arbitrary shot in the women's health club, composed as a stab at Persona-meets-the-elliptical-machine: all of these serve as testimonies to just how patently Arcand realizes that he ought to "do something cinematic" every now and then, and just how limited a notion he harbors of what that would entail.

The film doesn't swat you with the bargain-basement nostalgia of the "oldies" soundtrack of The Big Chill, but it also misses the kind of sympathetic but vinegary detachment that made Whit Stillman's Metropolitan such a delight, even though that movie immersed itself among the insufferable prep-school equivalents of these same well-intended, out-of-touch blowhards. I hate when a film is so prosaic and smug in the way it simulates intellect that it only helps to solidify the culture's gross impatience and antagonism toward anything like a learned class. Decline hawks a thesis that says People trained to take the longer view on life are as myopic and silly as the rest of us. This is not an invalid argument. In fact, it has plenty of warrant, but if you don't do something with it, dramatically or stylistically, it flattens itself of any storytelling potential, and it winds up corroborating whatever huge, lazy generalizations we take into the cinema, rather than handing us something new to carry away as a result of this experience. In that way, to risk one more analogy, The Decline of the American Empire is like a dinner-party version of Dawn of the Dead, transparently pleased with its own structuring "insights." These people are just like zombies! you might exclaim during either film, because the filmmakers have worked so hard, and so literally, to endow you with that epiphany. Arcand, though, seems much less aware than Romero that he is making a kind of zombie movie, and possibly unaware that he is directing like a zombie. Romero uses lethargy and slow accretion as a formal challenge, and a seminal ingredient of what his film has to say. Arcand just sinks into the same habitus, perhaps convinced that if he can get us chuckling often enough, we won't be watching the clock. I did occasionally chuckle. More often I recoiled, usually when I wasn't meant to. Most often at all, I watched the clock. Grade: C

VOR: (2)   (What is this?)
If only because it places so much trust in dialogue, sets up camp within a taste culture and a social idiom that modern movies habitually avoid, and because it earned such tremendous approval from critics and audiences on exactly these grounds, The Decline of the American Empire makes a case for belonging in anyone's cinematic time capsule for the year. Still, in terms of originality and value, the movie heartily disappoints, especially on any grounds specific to its being a film. It's up for grabs what you will learn about the characters or their predicaments by watching Decline, but as Arcand himself has jokingly admitted, it's hard to imagine you will learn anything about cinema.

Academy Award Nominations:
Best Foreign Language Film

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: FIPRESCI Prize (Un Certain Regard)
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Foreign Language Film
Genie Awards (Canadian Oscars): Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress (Portal); Best Supporting Actor (Arcand); Best Original Screenplay; Best Film Editing (Monique Fortier); Best Sound; Best Sound Editing; Golden Reel Award

Permalink Home 1986 ABC Blog E-Mail