Le déclin de lâ€™empire américain
Review by Eva Holland
Posted on 25 June 2008
Source Seville Pictures DVD
The Decline of the American Empire begins with a theory: that the single-minded pursuit of personal happiness will become the dominant force in a civilization only in the moments before its inevitable decline. The proponent of this theory is Dominique, an academic in Montreal. She expounds on the idea to a female reporter, Diane, in the opening frames â€“ and the rest of the film is essentially an attempt to demonstrate its truth.
After the interview, Dominique and Diane join Danielle and Louise at the gym. Meanwhile, four men â€“ Remy, Pierre, Alain and Claude â€“ are preparing an elaborate dinner at a large lake-side house. Separately, the two groups both indulge in afternoon-long conversations about their sex lives: Louise speaks cavalierly about her husbandâ€™s indiscretions when he travels, but suggests that she is satisfied knowing he is well-behaved at home; Pierre describes the high he gets from cruising in Montrealâ€™s gay hotspots. Diane reveals that she is involved in an increasingly violent dominant-submissive relationship, and notes, with relish, her discovery of the immense â€œpower of the victimâ€; Remy recalls the time that he visited one of his assorted mistresses, and then â€“ with his wife and dinner waiting â€“ paused on the way home to pick up a prostitute, too.
The bulk of the film is filled by this conversation, and you might wonder whether the script would have been just as well suited for a radio play. But the characters are in constant motion as they talk â€“ doing leg lifts, chopping tomatoes â€“ and something about those familiar motions lends additional texture to the salacious chit-chat. Not that director Denys Arcand is ever so unsubtle as to insert any explicit innuendo â€“ no one is stroking the neck of a wine bottle while they recall their last affair here â€“ but the physical detail of the charactersâ€™ actions, which occupies most of the cameraâ€™s attention, adds to the charged atmosphere in both settings.
The conversation can be a little jarring to observe. We may be inured to even the most explicitly sexual dialogue in TV and movies these days, but weâ€™re also accustomed to hearing the words come from the mouths of young, beautiful people. These dowdy, middle-aged professionals donâ€™t seem the type to be calmly discussing sex tourism or swingers parties â€“ and that, of course, is part of the point. Also jarring is the casual racism that crops up from time to time; itâ€™s not clear whether those moments are an unconscious product of the time, or whether Arcand inserts them deliberately, to demonstrate another aspect of his protagonistsâ€™ characters. Given his sensitive, thoughtful rendering of Pierre â€“ a gay man on the big screen, years before Philadelphia â€“ I suspect itâ€™s the latter. (Though of course itâ€™s entirely possible to be completely homophobia-free, and still be a racist.)
Soon enough, it becomes clear that the two groups are connected, and eventually the women join the men at the house for dinner. There, what begins as a lovely evening with old friends rapidly degenerates, as the deep unhappiness covered up by the afternoonâ€™s bold, risquÃ© conversations rise to the surface. Secrets are spilled, grievances are voiced, and a group that started out seeming confident, modern, and sexually satisfied begins to appear completely unfulfilled, sexually or otherwise.
Hanging over all this are two specters: AIDS, and the bomb. Arcandâ€™s suggestion is clear: that the charactersâ€™ sexual habits are less a product of desire, and more a product of fear and boredom; a fruitless, endless chase after a short-lived high. Dominique was in fact speaking of herself and her friends in the opening: It is 1986, the final days of the American empire, and the protagonistsâ€™ obsessive â€“ and ultimately empty â€“ hunt for personal satisfaction lets us know that the end is near.
The Decline of the American Empire is certainly not the only Cold War-era movie to flirt with the apocalypse. The difference, though, is that while others predicted concrete, political or military catastrophes, Arcand is positing a cultural apocalypse, not a physical one. It is these more abstract ideas that lend the movie its compelling power today. Certainly, you could argue that the North America of 2008 isnâ€™t all that different from the North America of 1986: the twin specters of disease and annihilation still dominate peopleâ€™s fears, and the single-minded pursuit of personal happiness still dominates their day-to-day efforts. The difference is that today, we have ever more plentiful and sophisticated means to achieve that happiness â€“ or at least, the sorts of instant gratification that often serve as substitutes to a more lasting and deep-rooted contentment. The hair styles and fashions, the racial language, even the image quality of the film all date this movie â€“ but the ideas are still entirely relevant today.
One thing that Dominique never clarifies is whether the pursuit of personal happiness is a symptom of, or a cause of, societyâ€™s decline. Are Diane, Remy, Claude and Louise victims of their empireâ€™s decline, intended to evoke sympathy? Is the viewer meant to judge them as the self-serving catalysts of Arcandâ€™s prophesied cultural apocalypse? Or are we merely meant, for better or worse, to see ourselves in their bravado, their dishonesty, and their frenzied efforts at self-satisfaction?
The second and third films in Denys Arcandâ€™s trilogy, the Oscar-winning The Barbarian Invasions and 2007â€™s Days of Darkness, are both set in our own time. Iâ€™ll be curious to see how our protagonists make out in the new millennium.