THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE Written and Directed by Denys Arcand Starring Dominique Michel, Dorothee Berryman, Louise Portal, Pierre Curzi and Remy Girard
It has been 25 years since Quebecois filmmaker, Denys Arcand, revealed his greatest film, THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE, to the world. The Oscar-nominated triumph has been touched up for its anniversary re-release and it is just plain shocking how sharp and apt the messages still remain to this day, not to mention how fantastic it all looks. Arcand’s three-act exploration of the drastic differences between how men and women view sex, occasionally falls prey to cliché but this just allows for often-truer revelations. Although no one is willing to admit it, there is a war coming between the sexes and it will bring about the downfall of empires by the time it’s done.
The first act finds the men and women who make up this ensemble cast in different quarters. No doubt surely an attempt at inversing assigned gender roles, Arcand has his men in the kitchen making dinner all day while the ladies work out at the gym. The conversations shared between the two groups are the same but the approach towards the topic is drastically different. When Arcand’s men – a married serial cheater, a divorced professor, a naïve teaching assistant and a promiscuous gay man – discuss sex, it is dirty, tasteless and without any compassion or regard for the people they’ve been with. Bragging abounds but it comes across clearly that their experiences are not appreciated in the moment, but are rather just future fodder for conversations like these. The women on the other hand – a cuckolded wife, a divorcee, a single player and a new addition to the group – speak of sex with a sense of understanding as to what the experience actually means. They aren’t attaching meaning where there isn’t any and they certainly aren’t holding back any of the details but their sense of appreciation is so much stronger than that of the men.
In the second act, the two groups converge and sit down to dinner with each other. The majority of them are academics and their conversation reflects this. The topic is still sex, as that seems to be the only preoccupation on these people’s minds, but the pedantic approach to it often reaches far past the carnal act itself. Leering at objects of desire is fused with opinions on race and politics, which only further serves to disassociate these people from the inherent intimacy of sexuality. It is almost as though every intellectual thought leads back to their reproductive organs. And while the daytime conversation was tawdry at best, it was still light. With fatigue setting in and the wine flowing freely though, the tone of the talks becomes more sordid and secrets begin to surface. They begin to see that all of the activities that they have been boasting about throughout the day can actually hurt other people; no matter how much they try to rationalize the act of sex down to something animal and purely physical, it is clear that these supposedly superior individuals are not smart enough to see how impossible it can be to separate sex from emotion.
From the very onset of the film, Arcand poses a theory to the audience. His claim is that a society consumed with personal, individual happiness is a signifier of the decline of that society. When the marital units within a society thrive, it is because they are pursuing common goals, presumably ones that contribute to society as a whole as well. Conversely, when everyone is solely out for themselves, then no collective group of people is making any strides. The characters in THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE mostly speak as if they aren’t even married of committed to any one thing in their lives. They simply want to be happy and remind themselves that they are alive for fleeting moments no matter what the consequence. With all this clamouring and clawing away at the people we are supposed to be closest to in our lives, it is no wonder that we aren’t getting anywhere at all. 25 years later and the decline resonates stronger than ever before.