From the award-winning director of The Barbarian Invasions, we are treated to a unique insight into the minds of the intellectual. And sex. In this unforgettable classic about modern relationships (and sex), we find ourselves caught in the crossfire when a weekend amongst friends goes awry. Four men and four women plan an intimate dinner party. While the men prepare dinner and discuss their sexual exploits, the women hit the gym to discuss their own promiscuity. The candid conversations are later brought to the dinner table, where more revelations, confrontations – and sex – begin.
eyelights: the richness of its dialogues. its colourful characters.
eyesores: its underlying darkness. its theatrical performances.
“Lies are the roots of any lovelife, much like it’s the glue of all social life.”
I’m a cerebral person. Though I would hardly claim to be intellectual, I’m much more in my head than the average person. The way this impacts my sexuality is that my brain is even more so an erogenous zone than it is for most people.
I get turned on by ideas so, in effect, my head nearly always runs the show. This is why sex is so potent; it’s one of the only times that I can escape my brain. I like to simmer in seas of hormones because, in that moment, I am free.
Naturally, I’m fascinated by everything that revolves around sex. When I left high school, the goal was to become a sex therapist. My university experience was such that this never transpired, but I still love to read and discuss sex.
This explains why a movie like ‘Le Déclin de l’empire américain’ connected with me as strongly as it did when I first saw it, some 25 years ago: the award-winning 1986 Denys Arcand motion picture is all about the joys and burdens of sex.
In it we find a group of University friends and their partners discussing their love lives, at first in two groups, as the men prepare dinner and the women work out at a sports complex, and then together, later, as they have dinner.
It’s not a sexy film, per se, in that there’s very little nudity and/or sexual activity; it’s a film that’s so deeply rooted in its dialogues that it could easily translate to the theatre stage. The key here are the revelations and exchanges.
For instance, we soon discover that this group of intellectuals, not unlike the ones we find in Woody Allen films, revel in sex and are incapable of being monogamous. In fact, they’ve almost all had affairs outside their relationships.
Some have even had sex together on the side.
It makes for a complicated mélange as layers of secrets and lies cover the group, which is trying to integrate relatively new arrivals. The balancing act has been refined through the years, but it’s always at risk of tripping them up.
What’s interesting in these discussions is the candor with which they discuss their conquests, infidelities, personal preferences, kinks, homosexuality, prostitution, differences between male and female fantasies, …etc. It’s fresh.
…even if some of the views are now painfully dated.
One of the more interesting exchanges comes when Diane’s lover drops by unannounced: a low-brow biker type, he dismisses the group dynamics after coming to the conclusion that all they do is talk about sex; they don’t get down to it.
When Diane makes him hard, he says, he takes her. Simple as that.
This obviously illustrates really what I’ve experienced, this conflict between intellect and lust, which often short-circuits the ability to act on one’s sexual impulses. Desire is simply not something that you think about and process.
Mario understands that, and expresses his disdain to the group.
The discussions come to a head when Dominique discusses her theory that our growing individualism is an indicator of the decline of our modern civilization (hence the film’s title), as she claims has been the case through the ages.
This doesn’t sit well with Remy’s spouse, the more naïve one of the bunch (as evidenced by her inability to notice Remy’s serial cheating), who believes that, if anything, this was the first step in a new era of grand enlightment.
This doesn’t sit well with Dominique, who lashes out.
This is where the picture takes more dramatic turn, as one might expect from a third act. But it takes away from the light-heartedness of the witty and frank exchanges: suddenly, the characters are shell-shocked by the mines they’d ignored.
The cast play this beautifully, and there’s a heartbreaking moment that demonstrates how capable the actors are. Interestingly, though many are known for comedy, the lighter parts weren’t handled nearly as well; they weren’t always natural.
If anything, sometimes the picture felt like theatre, not real life, though less so than in most Québécois films of that period. And, anyway, it’s sort of fitting, given the material. I just wish I could have believed the performances throughout.
Still, ‘Le Déclin de l’empire américain’ remains one of my all-time favourite films. I don’t respect many of the characters, who are selfish and dishonest, but I find the dialogues rich and thought-provoking. And, sometimes, very funny.
It’s a rare combination, something that Woody Allen excels at, but that isn’t handled well by everyone. Here, Denys Arcand showed a flair for dialogues and staging that proved his talent – consequently, he and his film won many awards.
And it’s richly deserved.
Date of viewing: March 19, 2017