Frame to Frame

It’s all About Sex

Before winning the Oscar for The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand got the nomination for The Decline of the American Empire.

Cinema du Parc is currently showcasing the filmography of one of the most (to many, the number one) internationally renowned Quebecois directors, Denys Arcand. With three Oscar nominations to his name, he is arguably mostly known for directing the Oscar winning film Les Invasions Barbares (2003). Many however believe that his international fame got kick-started by the 1986 film that got the first Oscar nomination, Decline of the American Empire.

You hear that title and I bet sex is the last thing on your mind. Not so for Arcand. It’s one of those conversational films where dialogue is the core strength of the whole piece. However, there are splurges of brilliance apart from the raunchy, crisp and cutting-edge dialogue the characters find themselves in. For example, the opening credit sequence features a long steady-cam shot in the bowels of a university building while a theme by Handel roars through the speakers. It’s a sequence Kubrick would have agreed with.

But it is Arcand’s script that holds the key here. The film is divided into three parts: before, during and after a dinner. A group of university professors gather to discuss intellectual subjects for dinner but the meat of the film, the before part, shows the women at the gym and the men preparing the meal, an ingeniously flipped stereotype if there ever was one.

Sex is the only thing on these people’s minds when not confronted by their respective spouse, partner or opposite sex counterpart. The cast of characters is as colorful as you’d expect this type of film to have in order to keep our attention: Louise the faithful wife, Dominique the older of the femme fatales, Diane the younger of the two and Danielle the innocent girlfriend, in the gym. For the men: Pierre the middle-aged boyfriend, Remy the unfaithful husband, Claude the homosexual and Alain the teenage novice, preparing the meal.

There is no real plot to grab on to and follow here. From start to end we are engaged in the conversations of these characters and the wit of Arcand’s pen. “Age leads to vice” is one of the many quotable quips from Pierre and the rest of the boys and girls, and could also stand as a tag line for the whole movie. This is essentially a film about middle-aged intellectuals whose youth has flown by leaving them starving for lust, desire and passion in their lives.

At one point Remy proudly says, “I may cheat on Louise, but I know she’s the one for me” and laughs. It’s hard to sympathize with someone like that, which leads to the biggest problem here: you can’t really sympathize with anybody in this film. Everyone’s true colors are shown as depraved humans devoid of real emotions, while the most innocent characters (Louise and Danielle) are either too blind or indifferent to the goings on around them.

But maybe Arcand did not want to us to sympathize with these adults. It is after all how he ties in the whole theme of perversion and lust to the decline of a country’s empire. The epilogue has a narrator tell us that the youth is doomed for having “no models to live by. Our own existence is being eroded.” With men talking about STDs like they can’t wait to get them and hide them from their wives, and women giving relationship advice to their girlfriends while sleeping with their husbands on the side, you kind of get what Arcand is saying.

The Decline of the American Empire is a very clever and entertaining exposure of a specific version of adulthood. A little cold and detached, with some characters being quite detestable apart from their sense of humor, it’s a film that many won’t be able to relate to completely; those who still believe in the sanctity of marriage for example. But as the empire continues its steady decline, this deliciously decadent tale feels as contemporary as ever. And that’s the biggest turn-on here.

You will be doing yourself a favor by checking out some of Arcand’s films still showing at Cinema Du Parc. The festival runs until Feb. 9.