The stage is set in an early sequence, as intimate and population-wide concerns are placed on equal footing during an interview between a sexy, sadomasochistic journalist and an author:
“The concept of personal happiness permeates the nature of a nation or civilization as its influence wanes.” By personal happiness, this means the expectation of instant gratification, which becomes the norm to the detriment of the collective good as a society collapses. Love as a part of personal satisfaction only becomes important in a society in decline (the author references Diocletian’s time in the Roman Empire, or as espoused by Rousseau just before the French Revolution). Personal desires destabilize the economic unit of a marriage, just as they can a nation. The author goes on to pose the question, “Is the frantic drive for personal happiness we see in society today linked to the decline of the American Empire?” The work of Denys Arcand can be wonderfully obtuse this way. He has a fondness for parallels between personal proclivities and larger societal and political issues, all wonderfully open to interpretation. The audacity of the filmmaker to so quickly alienate a large population of viewers with a defiantly intellectual opening scene in the age of lowest common denominator entertainment is bold and refreshing. This film was not the excretory product of a music video director using a recycled script that is then filtered through focus groups and advertising and merchandising executives. This is a singular vision and a labor of love that is unapologetically intellectual, and as such becomes more than a simple entertainment – it is a clarion call for a return to a philosophical ethos. One could interpret the theme as an indictment against self-interested debauchery, or the bitter end of the 1960s, but that is taking the narrow view that any one movement caused the downfall of an empire. Truth is, empires will fall regardless of our actions. One can hardly fault the witnesses for comprehending the process.
The structure of the story is of two groups of friends, half men, half women, all of them well educated and endlessly talkative about a legion of topics. Inevitably, all subjects converge upon sex, and since this is a French- Canadian film, well, anything goes. There is infidelity, bed-hopping, gay sex, discussions of scouring the suburbs for discreet affairs – most of all there are honest appraisals of love and marriage, and how fleeting the relationship between the two tends to be. The talk is not cynical or depressed, rather joyous and engaged, as the pursuit of love does not flag for a second. Even in a resigned state, these characters’ motto would be je ne rien regrette. One could say there is a battle of the sexes in progress, but the film takes such a prosaic notion into fascinating new directions, without a shred of moralizing beyond the hypothetical attributes of those morals. Secrets and lies, seduction and reversal, all in play within a circle of friends who speak as if they have known each other for a few lifetimes. Most alluring of all is that I wanted the movie to just keep going, without a resolution in sight, just to listen to the repartee. They are the kind of friends you want to have: sharp, erudite, non-judgmental, who use conversation as dolphins use the surf.
The characters are fleshed out and have a lived-in quality. Remy is a relentless womanizer, and his romantic attachments are intellectual in nature. “She was brilliant. That’s what education is about, not big breasts or long legs – it’s in the mind.” He would listen to her for hours on end discussing psychology. His wife Louise is aware, or rather suspects, these flings, and though she is less uninhibited, she is hardly a saint. Rather, she recounts a party they attended recently that turned into an orgy. She was hardly the life of the party as she only fucked once, and has no idea who it was. This is spoken with a neatly upturned sardonic smirk. The guy’s wife even interrupts them, asking if she is having fun, and requests that he hurry up. It is endlessly refreshing to watch a film in which sex is the subject and not a single moral judgment is to be found. Remy loves women and sex, recalling when he was on the way to see his mistress and was so aroused that he stopped off at a brothel first. This is later repeated in The Barbarian Invasions, the elegant companion piece to Decline of the American Empire.
The conversation is an eloquent verbal dance, each attempting to show their virtuosity with their stories and – crucially – their wit. Claude is gay and admits to his attraction to anonymous sex with dangerous men in the park, and has fears of being alone.
Pierre remembers meeting his girlfriend in a massage parlor, and despite his openness about sex, was taken aback by her intelligence. She discusses medieval history and offers to finish him manually or orally. That he chooses the hand job says all that is necessary about the power of the mind to spark the orgasm. “Ejaculating while discussing the first millennium was physically and intellectually overwhelming. I fell head over heels in love right there.”
The men talk while preparing dinner while the women work out in the gym and have a similar jousting match. Diane talks of her sexual tastes, which run irrevocably towards the violent and humiliating. A woman discussing being tied to a radiator in a degrading position and taken from behind and concluding, “I have never come like that…” belongs in every film, regardless of plot or content. Dominique is a woman who does not speak as much as listen with a wry smile, since she has had all of their men from time to time. The opening monologue about imperial decline is hers, and so her sexual power radiates from her fierce intellect. All subjects are fair game, including homosexuality, which is thankfully treated as just one of many sexual orientations. The one person who impugns such tastes is Louise, who is a neurotic introvert. And apparently the only woman in her social circle who hasn’t fucked another woman. She reflects, “And I am always so scared of being abnormal…” How easily the definition of that word changes when the subjects involved lose their repression. This fear of abnormality is so easily projected upon others when one is insecure, and too often given to passing judgment.
When the men and women meet, you can almost sense the battle lines that have been drawn, but the war remains a playful one. There is no blood here, only ideas, batted around in a blithe competition of badinage. As one of the men note: “Women’s rise to power has always been linked to decline.” A misogynist salvo? Hardly. These are well-educated people discussing philosophical ideas that are normally crushed underneath the contemptuous silence of political correction – our hateful genteelism. Such movements give rise to a middle class morality that is treated with contempt in the last third of the film in a seemingly cruel remark by one of the characters that should incur your applause.
Above all, this is a celebration of the cerebral among us, and the conviviality of friends who become like family. In this group one is most welcome if they bring a kind word, a sharp thought, and can understand the significance of a reference to Wittgenstein – “Our only certainty is to act with our bodies” – which is integral to the psyche of the film. The signs are all here. Breeding is not considered integral to success, as passing on one’s seed is not essential for survival, and does not affect whether you grow old alone. Love is treated as a complicated thing, and remains an elusive mind game, the sort of activity that should be attempted only by those ready to lose it in an instant. The only true sin presented is atrophy – failing to use one’s abilities causes them to decay from inattention, be it academic or sexual, and such a failure is a sad way to end one’s existence. As if to press the intellectual point home, a Neanderthal joins the party to wait for Diane. He does not have a thought in his head as he openly insults all present, and the tonal shift is awkward as the circle closes. This repudiation of the dullard philosophy exposes the ignorant as devoid of redeeming qualities, but it also reveals a central weakness of the intellectual. None of the men present defend themselves or at least cast a deserved zinger that would in all likelihood bounce off the guy’s head. Intellectuals, for all their love of talking, are rarely able or willing to defend their way of thinking, and this is why they will generally lose elections, power, and women.
“The signs of decline are everywhere” in the closing monologue. “With the collapse of the Marxist-Leninist dream, no model exists of which we can say ‘This is how we want to live’. In one’s personal life, there is no model to live by.” The film was made in 1986, as the Eastern Bloc was falling to pieces, and Western economies inherited the decaying global empire. How interesting that
America is only now becoming accustomed to the idea that its sun is setting. There is no titanic struggle in the film, unless one counts the skirmish of minds in an effort to sharpen the wits as a group of friends mark the passing of an empire.