Friday, November 04, 2005

The Decline of the American Empire


Dir: Denys Arcand (Jesus of Montreal; The Barbarian Invasions)

Thought provoking Francophone Canadian film about the sex lives of various history professors meeting together for a dinner party. So many movies in recent years have explored this subject matter, the Big Chill and on and on. Middle aged adults get together and discuss love and sex, realizing that they have hurt each other and helped each other in ways they did not know. Often these things are painfully bad, offering needlessly depressing observations of human nature and expoliting the audience's voyeuristic tendencies to embarass and humiliate the characters. Arcand's movie is better than that, but still suffers from the way the genre inevitably brings those issues to the fore.

The men in the movie are serial cheaters. With a pride they discuss their inability to avoid prostitutes or students while at their academic conferences. Each has a different way of reconciling their behavior with the constraints of married life, but their desires still control their lives. The women are all exceedingly intellectual and yet must take different and desctructive measures to compensate for the lack of love in their marriages or single lives. One sleeps around herself, one is withdrawn, one is in denial, one experiments with light bondage, etc. The first half of the movie segregates the gender groups and allows them to discuss the other. When they are brought together later, our observation of their interactions is informed by the secrets that had just been revealed.

The title refers to an academic theory that a culture gets more hedonsitic as it begins to decline, as excess makes the citizens soft and selfish. Canada, on the periphery of the emipre, both is sucked into this trend and attempts to stand apart from it. I would have taken lots more exploration of this issue, which is more implied than developed in the movie.

Some find love, some lose their marriage; you can imagine how it all turns out. You have seen it before. There were times when the movie made an observation or constructed a scene that was very intriguing. But taken as a whole, the film remained for me cold, bleak and cynical. Love here is a game, a deception, a contact sport where few win and everyone sustains an injury. That may be true, and it is certainly important to explore that subject matter in film. But it is not the sort of thing I really enjoy watching. The film is very well written and acted, but its entertainment value is lowered by its worldview.

Recommended for those in a good mood.