The Decline of the American Empire

At the beginning of The Decline of the American Empire, an author, in discussing her latest book, talks about how the decline of a civilization is marked by people becoming more individualistic and selfish. The drive for communal health and harmony sputters out as these newly “civilized” people crave greater personal satisfaction, whether it’s through materialism, sexual freedom, etc.

Well, the mark of the decline of good cinema is when the filmmaker begins to confuse intellectualism for emotionally rich storytelling. Arcand wants to dissect the shallow, sexually frivolous lives of a bunch of bourgeois, intellectually smug friends and lovers. The first half is segregated: the men gather around a kitchen, preparing a meal, and pontificate to each other about the finer points of debauchery, the sex drive and cheating on your wife. It’s essentially a bunch of ugly, narcissistic, shameless men chortling and guffawing about who they fucked and how, like it’s a bawdy church sermon. But instead of being wickedly funny, it’s repellent before becoming a total snore.

The same holds for the women who are “working out” at a nearby gym, swapping stories about what kind of men make the best lays, holding forth on their litany of affairs and cheating, and so forth. It’s fifty tedious minutes of circular conversation. Arcand thinks he’s making a profound and funny satire of sorts about the moneyed class in 1980s French Canadian society. Whatever it is, he has failed miserably. I would liken these moments, as I contained my growing contempt for these vapid, pampered snot-heads, to medieval torture.

Rapidly, while still in the first half, we come to simply hate these characters: They’re all selfish, insecure and flat-out boring (the last being the worst fate a character can suffer). When the men and women convene over wine and dinner, the movie picks up some steam and even becomes momentarily involving. A woman despairs in realizing the true extent of her husband’s pathological cheating; the gay member of the group–an inveterately promiscuous cruiser–finds himself worried about the blood in his urine; the swinging bachelor-professor contends with the love he feels for his young, emotionally more mature girlfriend; and one woman finds herself taken with the brutish charms of her thuggish new boyfriend. These are potentially compelling stories, but Arcand, the pompous social philosopher and inept storyteller, drains the lifeblood out of them.

We feel nothing for these characters because they themselves don’t seem mature enough to feel anything for themselves. They’re so wrapped up in the indulgent individualism of the age, that their very humanity has been sold in the bargain. Perhaps this is Arcand’s point. But rather than make a movie about it–a form which demands emotional engagement–he’d been better off taking a cue from his own snobbishly academic characters, writing a book instead, and sparing the rest of us.

Grade: F

Directed by: Denys Arcand
Written by: Denys Arcand
Cast: Dominique Michel, Dorothée Berryman, Louise Portal, Pierre Curzi, Rémy Girard, Yves Jacques, Geneviève Rioux, Daniel Brière, Gabriel Arcand

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