Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Decline of the American Empire

The intellectuals of Deny Arcands’s The Decline of the American Empire sure like to talk, and only one topic seems to hold their interest – sex. All of them, men and women are very flippant about the topic, and consider themselves to be sexual sophisticates. The film takes its time in aborbing their hubris, then eventually lays it bare.

Decline takes place over the course of one day, and for a great part of it, its male and female characters are separated. And they talk. Their conversations are striking in the level of detail they are willing to divulge, and in the subtle one-up-man-ship of their stories. Remy and Pierre go on about their affairs with their students. Remy’s wife Dominique recalls the night that the two of them went to their first orgy. Diane talks about her sado-masochistic affair with a younger man. Claude tells of his exploits in cruising for gay men. The common thread is their seeming dismissal of the idea of sexual normalcy.

The extended opening sequences feature the men preparing dinner, and the women working out at a gym. This little role–reversal is Arcand’s sly little way of reinforcing the film’s portrayal of people who have fallen off the sexual rails. It’s startling to realize after a while how little these people really know each other. The film shows Remy talking endlessly about his affairs, and then switches to Dominique re-assuring her friends that he is essentially faithful.

I’ve made these people sound like narcissistic jerks, haven’t I? I suppose they are, but somehow, they are also likable. They are all intelligent and articulate, and clearly have a great fondness for each other. The film provides us with flashbacks that illustrate just how far some members of the group have taken the fondness. Diane’s daughter interrupts her in the middle of sex, and stays to ask questions about this strange man in bed with her mother. Pierre visits a massage parlour and finds himself being masturbated by one of his students – Who talks theory while doing the deed. These hilarious and sexy vignettes rescue Decline from being just a ponderous talkfest.

When the two groups finally unite for dinner, a curious thing happens – The sex talk all but dries up, and they fall into traditional modes of conversation and behavior. That’s when Arcand introduces a wild card into the mix – Diane’s thuggish boyfriend Mario. He interrupts their dinner, and after listening for a while, cuts to the chase.

“When I was here this afternoon, all these guys could talk about was sex. I thought I’d come back to an orgy. When I get horny, I fuck – I don’t just talk about it!”

The tension and embarrassment around the dinner table is palpable, as Mario lays out what we’ve been thinking all along. These people talk a good game, but when it comes down to it, they’re just as uptight as everyone else.

The title of the film relates to a couple of lectures that we hear at the beginning. The theory is that great civilizations decline as their peoples become more and more self-absorbed. There’s no question that these people fit that bill. The overriding theme of all of this talk is that they first and foremost are looking for gratification – the hell with everyone else. These people do a lot of hurtful things to one another - not because they are malicious, but because they just don’t think beyond themselves. By the end of the film, there’s a bit of evidence that they may realize this. Perhaps. Perhaps this new realization will vanish the next time a pretty face or a cute ass presents itself.

Note – The characters of this film re-appeared in 2003 in Arcand’s brilliant The Barbarian Invasions. The two films are interesting top watch side-by-side, just to see the evolution of these people. Check it out.

No comments: