The Decline of the American Empire Review
Four men, all of them on the university faculty, prepare a dinner party for that evening. Rémy (Rémy Girard) is married, but not above sleeping with other women. Pierre (Pierre Curzi) has a girlfriend. Alain (Daniel Brière) is unattached. Claude (Yves Jacques) is gay, and the risks inherent in cruising are part of the thrill for him. As the afternoon progresses, they talk about women and sex. Meanwhile, their guests – Rémy’s wife Danielle (Dorothée Berryman), Pierre’s girlfriend Danielle (Geneviève Rioux), Dominique (Dominique Michel) and Diane (Louise Portal) – work out at a health club and talk about their love lives, about men. And sex. That evening, a few secrets are about to be revealed…
French-Canadian writer/director Denys Arcand had been making films since the early Sixties, but it was this black satirical comedy that made his reputation outside his native country. The plot is straightforward, even slight, driven as it is by dialogue. Like that of a bawdier Eric Rohmer, Arcand’s dialogue is sharp, funny, character-revealing and a pleasure to listen to. It’s very much the “action” of this film. Arcand consulted many of his friends, of both sexes, as to what they said to each other in private, what men say to other men about women, and vice versa. (One of the friends thanked in the end credits is the late Jean-Claude Lauzon, director of Night Zoo and Léolo.) It certainly rings uncomfortably true. The film is particularly acute on how men can separate sex from love, while women generally can’t. This is particularly true in the later stages of the film, for reasons you’ll have to discover for yourself. None of the characters are especially likeable, and Arcand maintains an ironic distance, which is especially noticeable when Mario (played by Gabriel Arcand, the director’s younger brother) gatecrashes the party. But the film isn’t heartless: scenes showing two characters, both deep down lonely and afraid, seeking comfort in each other, are genuinely moving. The acting is first-rate across the board, and Arcand’s direction and Guy Dufaux’s photography are models of self-effacing precision. In 2003, Arcand would reunite some of these characters in a mellower sequel, The Barbarian Invasions, largely set in the same lakeside villa as this film.
The Decline of the American Empire was filmed open-matte but its intended ratio is 1.85:1. For their DVD, encoded for Region 2 only, Artificial Eye have provided a first-rate anamorphic transfer, sharp and colourful with strong blacks and fine shadow detail – the latter particularly noticeable in the later nighttime exterior scenes. It’s virtually flawless.
The French-language soundtrack is mono, as was the original theatrical release. As such there’s nothing wrong with it, as this is very much a dialogue-driven film. François Dompierre’s score, based on themes by Handel, makes discreet appearances now and again. Suffice to say that this film won’t give your system a workout, but like the direction and camerawork its soundtrack does its job without drawing undue attention to itself.
There are twelve chapter stops and the English subtitles on the feature are optional.
The main extra is the theatrical trailer. This is full-frame with burned-in subtitles, running 2:12. This is considerably worse condition than the feature, being faded and contrasty. The only other extras are text biofilmographies for Rémy Girard and Dorothée Berryman, and a text filmography for Denys Arcand. (This only goes back to 1970, while the IMDB’s filmography begins in 1962.)
Due to the success of The Barbarian Invasions (his first feature released in the UK since 1995), Arcand’s profile is much higher now. So this would be the perfect time to revisit this earlier, breakthrough film of his. It’s certainly “talky” and certainly won’t be for the easily offended, but it’s a treat. Artificial Eye have once again provided an excellent transfer.