Judge Neal Solon notes that almost every Barbarian Invasion is preceded by the Decline of an Empire—even artsy French ones.
A provocative nineteen-year-old comedy about sex, friendship, and all other things that invade our lives…
Decline of the American Empire preceded its sequel, The Barbarian Invasions, by more than 15 years. When director Denys Arcand chose to revisit the characters and situations addressed herein, he won an Academy Award for his efforts. It is not surprising, then, that The Barbarian Invasions is now better known than its prequel. Regardless, The Decline of the American Empire still stands well on its own as an exploration of sex, fidelity, infidelity, and social morals.
Facts of the Case
Pierre, Remy, Claude, Alain, Dominique, Danielle, Diane, and Louise are friends and acquaintances. They are connected primarily through their work at a university in Montreal—that, and through their sex lives. They have all decided to get together for a leisurely dinner and conversation. Before dinner, the women go to the gym and the men get together to prepare the meal, and they talk. In fact, they talk a lot; and the subject of their conversations, of course, is sex.
As The Decline of the American Empire began to play across my television, my girlfriend looked at me and said, "Why do I get the feeling that this is going to be The Big Chill, but in French?" Thinking about that question in retrospect, the comparison is apt; and in researching background information about this film, I have discovered that it is a comparison many critics have made. It sticks because the film is based around the gathering of a group of old friends (a group that happens to be quite incestuous), and because both this film and The Big Chill deal, to some extent, with the loss of the idealism of a generation.
The film begins with Diane (Louise Portal, The Barbarian Invasions) following her friend Dominique (Dominique Michel, The Barbarian Invasions) around the university where they work. Diane is interviewing Dominique about her new book. In this book, Dominique puts forth the theory that the imminent decline of great empires throughout history has always been accompanied by a shift in social norms. The recurring shift is one away from marrying for business reasons, for a dowry, or because family connections, and towards marrying for the unquantifiable feeling called "love." Accompanying this shift toward marrying for love comes the idealization of sexual monogamy.
How, exactly, this directly relates to the decline of empires is not immediately clear. As the movie continues, however, we discover that most of the film's protagonists feel that this sexual monogamy is a bunch of puritanical baloney. Beyond that, many of them feel that it is unnatural and even physically impossible. Only one of their cohort, Louise (Dorothé Berryman, The Barbarian Invasions), seems not to have gotten the memo. When she finds out about the exploits of her husband, we see firsthand the unnecessary tension and damage that the social construct of monogamy can create. That is, at least, the way most of the friends would see it—pain and suffering caused by the idealization of monogamy.
The other view to consider is that this is the sort of unnecessary tension and damage that is created by infidelity. Director Denys Arcand never seems to come down firmly on one side or the other. The way his characters speak, you would assume that he scoffs at the very idea of monogamy, but their chaotic lives tell a different story. Despite their varying degrees of sexual freedom, none of the eight central characters seems particularly happy. In fact, with rare exceptions, they appear to lead disappointing and deceitful lives. It almost seems that Arcand might be subtly asserting the exact opposite of the views held by this character Dominique, conveying instead that the decline of society is accompanied by a shift away from monogamy, as evidenced by the characters' hollow and chaotic, sexually-driven lives.
Regardless of one's opinion concerning the film's intent, The Decline of the American Empire succeeds at face value. The eight central characters each have unique sexual interests and hang-ups, and witnessing the open discussion of exactly these things proves to be interesting. Though some might find the amount of talking in this film a turn off—and talking is really about all you see these characters do—the film's interest lies not in the sexual acts themselves, but rather in their social implications. Arcand chooses to explore these implications through the relationships and conversations of a group of friends who intellectualize sex.
As one might suspect from the descriptions above, this film is dialogue driven. The soundtracks deliver this dialogue ably. The few times the characters spoke in English, one has no trouble discerning their words, despite their accents. The rest of the time the story is delivered by clear, readable English subtitles. Apart from that, there is little of importance on the audio tracks, so the surround sound mix seems like overkill.
The age of the film is slightly more obvious in the video. The colors occasionally seem muted, but picture is free from distracting defects. The film and the trailer, which is provided as the sole extra on this disc, obviously come from different sources; the film looks immeasurably better than its two-minute counterpart. While they are not directly comparable, if the trailer is any indication of how The Decline of the American Empire could have aged, then having a version of the film that is as clear and colorful as this one is thrilling.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the most frequent complaints levied against The Decline of the American Empire, other than its talky nature, concerns the characterization of Claude (Yves Jacques, The Barbarian Invasions), the film's sole gay character. Claude, after the death of a man he loved, finds himself "cruising," sleeping with anonymous men night after night. Beyond that, he claims to embrace the risk of disease as a part of what makes sex exciting. Some see this portrayal as presenting the homosexual character in the movie as uniquely one-dimensional and sexually driven.
One can argue, however, that the reverse is true. While Claude may claim to embrace disease as a part of sex, his real fear is belied in a scene where we witness his discovering that there is blood in his urine. Additionally, it is true that Claude lives his life sleeping with unknown men he meets in a park, but this is, to some extent, a reaction to his loss of a loved one and an indication that he may not have fully dealt with that loss. Such encounters are common in both the heterosexual and homosexual worlds. It is why everyone knows what the phrase "being on the rebound" means.
Most important in an appraisal of Claude, though, is the fact that he is not deceiving anyone to live his sexual life. Unlike his friends, Claude's sexual decisions do not involve lying to someone he claims to love. While he must hide his intentions from the police who patrol the park where he cruises, those close to him are aware of his choices and are not intentionally kept in the dark. This, in many ways, can be considered more moral than the choices made by the other characters, whose lives are just as sexually driven but far more deceitful.
In all, this disc is a passable presentation of a surprisingly interesting film. "Talkfests" have unusual potential to bore anyone who dares try to watch them, especially if one is primed for a movie with more "action." While some may have that problem with The Decline of the American Empire if they were expecting a sexual feast, most will find something of interest here, even almost twenty years after the film was made.
All parties involved in the creation of this film are released, and the charges are dismissed with prejudice. Koch Vision is to be thanked for bring this film to DVD, even if it was just to capitalize on the critical success of The Barbarian Invasions, but the court hopes that more effort will be put into the supplements on future releases. Oh…and is there anyone who might state, for the record, the exact purpose of including an English language dub on a disc like this?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• French Trailer
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