User ReviewsReview this title
I liked the leisurely pace of the opening credits which play over a long tracking shot moving down a long concourse terminating in our meeting two of the main characters - Dominique and Diane. Diane, a journalist for "Writers Today," is interviewing Dominique about her new book, "Changing Concepts of Happiness." Right up front we are introduced to the main thesis which is that a society is in decline when it becomes more concerned with individual happiness and instant gratification rather than with the general good. In such a society people resist sacrifice and marriages break down as people pursue personal happiness. What happens in the rest of the movie illustrates the point.
In short order we are introduced to two more women, Louise and Danielle, who are working out in a gym. They are joined by Diane and Dominique and, during their workouts, the women discuss in intimate detail some of their past sexual exploits.
Then we are introduced to four men (Remy, Pierre, Alain, Claude) who are preparing an elegant dinner for the four women we have already met. Remy, Pierre, Claude are faculty in the history department of a Quebec university and Alain is a student. Dominique is the chairman of the department, Diane is a teaching assistant there, Louise is the wife of Remy and Danielle is Pierre's partner and an undergraduate, so it's a pretty close-knit bunch of intellectuals. As the men prepare the meal they talk endlessly about their sexual exploits as well, but, as can be imagined, the tone of their conversation is a bit different from the women's. We are clearly well into the post sexual revolution era as much adultery is confessed and sexual fantasies revealed, and Claude's homosexuality is totally accepted. It is an ironic twist that the men are preparing dinner and the women are in the gym, *but* the women are in the gym so that they can be more sexually attractive to men.
I asked myself why I found the men's banter more entertaining than what I have overheard many times in men's locker rooms, and the answer is that it is witty and literate rather than crude and unimaginative. Perhaps more importantly all the actors seem to be having such fun and deliver their lines with such enthusiasm that it rubs off. Also, while "The Decline of the American Empire" is no "Big Night," the dinner preparations and ultimate product are not without interest. Unless you are a gourmet cook, you will learn, as I did, about "vesiga," "velouté," "coulibiac," and "mousseline."
And there are some special treats like when the four men act out a little dance about how they have to engage in that activity to please their women. While dancing they give voice to topics that they pretend interest in, for the same purpose. Their dance is clever, tightly choreographed, and hilarious.
The musical score is suitably highbrow, with a little help from Handel and Francois Dompierre.
So, why do I think that "The Decline of the American Empire" is ultimately depressing? Because it illustrates too well the destructive effects of the selfish pursuit of personal happiness, particularly with regard to sexual gratification. None of the relationships here is stable. And the philosophizing at the end espouses a cynical pessimism that intellectuals seem particularly good at. There is discussion to the effect that people should speak about what they know, and that's it. For example, "the Pope knows all about masturbation and prostate ailments. He can talk about that - and the CIA. Don't underestimate the Pope." The group goes on to skewer Marx, Freud, Jung, sociologists, psychologists, and even themselves. They quote Wittgenstein to justify some of their behavior: "Our only certainty is to act with our bodies." Academics, you gotta love 'em.
If you go on to see the sequel, "The Barbarian Invasions" (same actors, same characters, seventeen years later) you will see that Remy's life is a metaphor for the more general thesis expounded in "The Decline of the American Empire." Each movie stands alone, but each benefits from having seen the other.
With perfidious lust Denys Arcand contra-dots male and female sex fantasies. When you listen to the gent club between stove and sink, your ears seem to fall off. When you hear the rants of the lady squad between sauna and bodybuilding, the ears of the gents ought to fall off. However, after the gender cliques unite at the table for dinner, a more complicated inner life becomes visible beneath all these ludicrous orgasm rants from before. Friends came together here who are kind to, who lie to, who hurt each other. Bitterness and resignation, but also safety and tolerance remain in the autumn dawn. And after all, it's a film of a verbally disarming sexual humour, adorably acted and with gentle ironies of absurd experiences of life: The human being is multifaceted. Simple are only theories.
Eventually they meet up at the country manor for dinner, and the conversation continues. While this may sound like not much happens, the film is never boring, and the direction by Denys Arcand keeps the viewer visually interested. I'm also keeping the character descriptions purposely vague, as their relationships to one another are revealed slowly as the film progresses. The dialogue is frank, funny and sharp, and all eight characters are fully-drawn human beings. I especially like the notion that these eight characters who seem to speak non-stop and at times overshare in the extreme, can't seem to honestly communicate when it matters most in their lives.
The title refers to a historical adage that when members of a given society begin to think about their own individual happiness above every other concern, that society is doomed. The characters' romantic navel-gazing and at times destructive pursuit of happiness seems to signal our own societal sunset. But don't let that heavy thought steer you away from the film, as it's brilliantly acted and well worth a look.
The sequel, "The Barbarian Invasions", made 17 years later, is also very worthwhile.
The story is simple - a group of men prepare dinner for a group of women who are at a club working out. While in separate locations, they are free to talk about their sexual appetites, exploits and conquests. The female conversations are particularly funny. Eventually, the women arrive and dinner commences, an unexpected guest shows up and eventually, secrets are revealed.
Decline of the American Empire is Denys Arcand's best film, and at the time, the best ever to come out of Canada. (That crown now firmly belongs to Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter). It seems a little dated today, but if you can handle subtitles, and if you like movies with lots of dialogue about sex and human relationships, it is a worthy rental. ***1/2 out of ****.
I enjoyed the conversations and how the director enhanced them with flashbacks. These were the evidence to the theses that the characters were proving. You could tell that there was as much physical humor as there was dialogue-based humor! When Diane (played by Louise Portal) described what sexual positions this 'real man' would put her in, she lied on the field and literally stretched them out! Another scene took place back at the vacation home with the 4 men. They got into a convo about how silly and mundane it was to pick up girls while dancing at a disco. They all got up and started dancing! While chatting up academics as small talk! The climax of the movie was particularly moving and heart-breaking. Can you see how I'm talking mostly about the plot? This is a great film that has a lot of movement in it, and it doesn't take a lot of walking and changes of scenery to keep it going!
This movie is *not* about sex, *not* about the sexual lives of the characters, and *not* about the battle of the sexes. As the title explicitly states, It is about the moral decline of a society, which in this particular case is made manifest through the over- indulging of the main characters on their sexual life and on their own personal gratification, at the expenses of their families, friends, and social group at large. This line of thought is made clear at the beginning of the movie. First, we see the main character – Remy – explaining the role of numbers in history, and claiming there is no place for morality in history, and thus drawing a line between personal and public history.
We then see Diane – one of the main characters – interviewing Dominique – the chairperson of the History department – who has just written a book entitled "Changing Concepts of Happiness". She draws a parallel between the American society at large/Empire and the Roman Empire, arguing that the search for personal happiness is associated with the decline and fall of a society. When people are too concerned with seeking quick gratification of their appetites while ignoring their responsibilities within family and larger social group, society is doomed to collapse.
And what we learn from the dialogues and the interactions that follow proves just that. What we see is that the lives of these so-called intellectuals are only marginally interested in history and the intellect. Their lives are centred around their never ending sex-hunt, and around the lies they consciously tell in order to hide the things that even according to their moral standards are considered rather unacceptable. Their relationships are fundamentally shallow and deceptive, and towards the end of the movie the whole sand castle comes crumbling down, and all is left is a huge nothingness, their nihilism, their lack of moral values and ideals. And so the story comes full circle while the characters sit together and listen to Dominique's interview, which reiterates the theme of decay, and is also the catalyst that will make the castle crumble down.
The dialogues are absolutely brilliant, and it is perhaps easy to be absorbed and forget about the broader theme, and when the movie ends you are left with a sense of desolation, even desperation, the same feelings that permeate the character's lives.
If you want a GOOD film, watch the sequel, Barbarian Invasions. Despite the general unlikable nature of many of the characters, the sequel is VERY involving and more realistic--well worth your time.
Set in Montreal, the ensemble including four very different men (three are university professors), Pierre (Curzi), a middle-aged man dating a young girl, Rémy (Girand), a married man for 15 years, Claude (Jacques), a single gay professor, and a young bachelor Alain (Brière), while they are preparing a dinner for the evening, their four female guests, are dripping with sweat in the uptown gym, they are, Louise (Berryman), Rémy's wife, Dominique (Michel), a spinster, Diane (Portal), a divorcée and Danielle (Rioux), Pierre's current girlfriend, a college student and moonlights as a masseuse. Plus, a non-middle class intruder is Mario (Arcand), a curt and tough kind, who only intends to engage in some rough shafting with Diane.
It takes quite some time for first-time viewers to get acquainted with these characters and their relationships. The first half of the film is constituted and divided by men's talk and women's talk, both about their various sex lives, buoyed up by a snippy editing (timely injecting flashback segments to visualize their recount), these two paralleled happenings are conflated together to enlighten how different views from men and women can be, especially on the same subject matter, the conversations are all perky and self-boosting, from excesses like adultery, S&M to swapping partners in an orgy, from speech of "gratification becomes the parameter of existence" to the titular "the decline of American empire" argument (an unconvincing point-of-view brewed in the ivory tower), as haughty and snobbish as they appear, there are moments of truth within.
When the two parties finally meet, the dinner table pleasantry turns into self-revealing heart- searching, then ends up with Dominique's spur-of-the-moment remark which causes strains upon Rémy and Louise's marriage. An acerbic mockery of talk the talk, but not walk the talk among these self-reliant middle class intellectuals, paralyzed by their verbal elaborations about their feelings and needs, while in truth, their lives are overwhelming benumbing.
Integrated an organic ensemble (Arcand, Rioux, Jacques and Michel are standouts in my pick) with a Haendel-themed spiritually enhancing soundtrack, and cinematographer Guy Dufaux's majestic static shots (notably the opening credit, and the sublime natural scenes), THE DECLINE OF THE American EMPIRE is eloquent in its tangy acuteness for sardonic-ism, but most of its contents are either blasé or under-developed, there is something missing in the aftertaste, maybe it is gratification.
There's a disturbing irony to it all because the film glazes over these dark, significant themes like infidelity but Arcand's approach is so flat and vanilla that none of it gets explored with even the slightest bit of depth or intelligence. I have no idea how these this film received such high praise from critics foreign and domestic. You can't live in a world where a true auteur such as Arnaud Desplechin is crafting ensemble character dramas that are so vivid and fascinating, and then look at this garbage and think it's anything worth watching.
Decline... commences with parallel groups of four men and four women as they prepare dinner at the cottage and work out at the gymnasium, respectively. The characters are either professors in the history at the Universite De Montreal or their lovers, and their conversations are dominated by discussions of sexuality. Though initially the segregated groups of men and women have quite gendered conversations on the subject, their eventual coming together over dinner causes things to heat up and tensions to rise.
A troupe of veteran Quebecois actors give indelible performances as the eight lead characters, special praise going to actor Remy Girard as the lovable scoundrel of the same first name. The cinematography of Arcand and DOP Guy Du Faux is also quite good, functional yet also achieving a subtle lyricism in parts. More than anything, however, the film should be noted for its script, Arcand possessing a preternatural skill for witty dialogue which makes the film enjoyable and engrossing throughout.
In conclusion, The Decline of the American Empire is a smart comedy/drama which offers a funny glimpse into the lives of intellectuals and their bedroom matters. The film is a must-see for fans of Woody Allen and Whit Stillman, covering similar territory to these filmmakers while also offering a flavour that is uniquely French-Canadian. The Empire may be in decline, but so as films like Arcand's are being made we can at least enjoy good cinema in the meantime.
There really isn't a plot. For the first half of the film four upscale, yuppie male friends (one gay) prepare a meal and talk about sex, while their female counterparts do the same at a gym. The 2nd half is the two groups sharing dinner, where the talk is more muted, but the personal stakes much higher.
Probably overrated when it first came out, now treated too harshly. The acting is strong throughout, and the satiric reality that all of the characters believe themselves self-knowing, but are really all living in denial and delusion is a little obvious, but interesting in it's execution.
I guess there is some shock value in having adults as old as our parents talk about sex, but after twenty minutes, this stops being interesting. Perhaps if the characters were all 20 years younger, the film would be more visually captivating.
LE DECLIN DE L'EMPIRE AMERICAIN is not worth the time.
Sadly, it's one of the best examples of canadian cinema I've seen.
The story involves a bunch of academics who hand around a holiday house (the men) and gym (the women) talking about sex. The two groups end up coming together at the holiday house and talking more about sex. As you can imagine nobody has anything particularly uplifting to say about the topic of sex, focusing more on serial infidelity.
I guess one could argue that the whole point of the movie was to ridicule the main characters to demonstrate the decline of the American empire, but I don't think the director achieved that.
Also watching a movie like this with subtitles is hard work because the movie is very wordy. I found it hard to keep up with the constant rush of words at the bottom of the screen.
So the idea is that relatively detestable people talk about sex, and that that talk is supposed to reveal how detestable they are as people. Arcand at least keeps giving it drive and momentum by doing interesting things with the camera such as isolating most of the characters in single frames, revealing their ultimate loneliness, and cutting rapidly between them, showing how they are more at war with each other than they are at agreement. And to give Arcand credit, this is pretty much what intellectual life is, a constant struggle with other intellectuals to stand out, even when everyone knows that standing out means standing alone.
But yeah, the characters and action are unsexy and kind of pathetic. I think this film is much more an aspect of its time than it is something meant to last, which makes it kind of dated. It's also the exact type of mental buffing in dialog and references to people like Susan Sontag that makes art-house films so unpopular around the populist entertainment moviegoers. In all, I'll take it anyway--it has its place basically among the exact type of people the characters are--it's just that it's not really interesting or important to anyone who isn't those characters.