In 1986 Philippines’ President Ferdinand Marcos went into exile after two decades of rule, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme was assassinated on his way home by a dissenter, the Space Shuttle Challenger disintegrated seconds into flight. What’s more, the Cold War was still going on, while an earthquake in El Salvador killed over 1,500 people and a nuclear reactor in Chernobyl, Ukraine exploded giving path to the greatest nuclear disaster in world history.
This year also saw the release of Denys Arcand’s film The Decline of the American Empire which on the surface seems to be a movie about human relationships - some have called it the Canadian version of The Big Chill- but is in fact more of a social response to what was going on in the world back then. Arcand’s movie takes place over the span of two days when four men and four women, all connected in one way or another by the History Department at the University of Montréal where they work or study, engage in conversation while eating and drinking.
But this is where the similarities between Arcand’s and Lawrence Kasdan’s films end. Where The Big Chill was all about humanity and the need to connect through other people (they get together for a friend’s funeral), Arcand’s film takes the opposite road. His characters aren’t together to celebrate humanity. Infact they use their disdain for people and their worship of intellect as ways to keep each other at a distance.
The Decline of American Empire includes an eclectic mix of characters - a married couple Rémy (Rémy Girard) and Louise (Dorothée Berryman), professor Pierre (Pierre Curzi), his girlfriend Danielle (Geneviève Rioux), bachelor Alain (Daniel Brière), Claude (Yves Jacques), a homosexual, and two single women, Diane (Louise Portal) and Dominique (Dominique Michel) - a writer. We don’t know much about them, except for what is hinted through their conversation and some flashbacks. We don’t know what keeps them together and why they became, and remain, friends.
During the first part of the film, the men prepare the meal in Claude’s house where they engage in discussions about infidelity, the female body and of course sex. The women meanwhile wait at a gym where they use the swimming pool, the exercise machines and the sauna as settings to discuss the same things the men are talking about (give or take different genitals and sexual orientations). Listening to their sexcapades, their vicious take on love and the way in which they all agree that brains come before bodies, we assume that once they’re all together the tone of the conversation will change and they will adapt to more “decent” social expectations. Possibly, because Arcand has kept them apart most of the time, as if they’re keeping secrets from each other.
This never happens and once they’re all in the same room they become characters straight out of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, minus the sexual games and dares. They over-intellectualize every subject and rarely discuss “feelings” and the existential crises we’ve come to expect of such gatherings. Even children become economical worries instead of signs of hope for them. Arcand makes it clear for us that this isn’t an inclusive club, the audience rarely feels invited or comfortable with these people, but then we wonder why is he taking us there?
Early in the film, Dominique gives an interview about the ideas behind her new book. She reveals that she’s fascinated by human kind’s constant search for happiness. Especially, because this happiness they seek so much isn’t an abstract concept, but more of an organism in constant transition and evolution. She goes on to affirm that human kind has had three major eras during which the idea of happiness turned into something different. The first was during the reign of Roman Emperor Diocletian, who fought to maintain peace and kick out “barbarians” –including Christians- who were threatening the stability of his empire. The second came during the Enlightenment especially with Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s political philosophy which led to the French Revolution’s search for equality. She then adds that the third era is the one they’re living in. Taking into consideration that her ideas are grounded so much on the political it’s easy to assume that she would think of the Vietnam War, the civil rights struggle and the two World Wars, as triggers for this. After this it’s easy to assume that perhaps all these characters have taken history as a shield for their actual fears, as a scapegoat, as a way to remain in denial or as an excuse for their hedonism.
It’s easy to see why Claude for example would prefer to be living in the Roman era. He goes on and on about how he only feels alive when he is cruising and with the surge of HIV/AIDS in the 80’s his fears about contracting the disease overcome his actual pleasure most of the time. Rémy too seems more apt to have been born in a polygamous, primitive culture where his dalliances wouldn’t affect his marriage. “He’s not even attractive” says Alain wondering how he gets so much sex. “He loves sex and that’s attractive” replies Dominique, who talks about Freud and Jung based on her theory that they were having homosexual debates.
Arcand more often than not makes us wonder if these people love sex as much as they say. The film is given a jolt of animalistic life with the appearance of Mario (Gabriel Arcand), Diane’s new boyfriend who indulges in wild sexual positions-she has bruises on her back, which she claims to be of pleasure-and doesn’t care what the intellectuals have to say about his lifestyle. “When I’m horny, I fuck” he explains, before taking Diane from the dinner table. She succumbs to his demands to the shock of others who continue their debates.
The Decline of the American Empire almost acquires farcical proportions when you start wondering if these people aren’t just books with clothes. But despite their contempt, Arcand doesn’t let their vision overcome the film’s ultimate achievement, which is the notion that after ideas must come action. It’s not enough to sit down talking about life without actually living it. Arcand makes fool out of his characters in the fact that you rarely can tell them apart, they don’t obtain distinctive personalities which you might remember once the movie is over. While they think that their cerebral meal is some kind of summit on what makes them different from the rest of the world, Arcand makes them seem like more pieces of the human mass. One that nobody will ever get to know completely.
The film ends with a beautiful elegiac tone as the sun rises after what seemed like an eternal night. It gives you time to reflect on what the characters have spoke about during all this time and after all their efforts to prove themselves as holding the final word, you can’t help but wonder have they found this happiness?