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Le Déclin de l'empire américain

(The Decline of the American Empire)

Year: 1986
Language: French
Format: 35mm Colour
Runtime: 95 min
Director: Denys Arcand
Producer: René Malo, Roger Frappier
Writer: Denys Arcand
Cinematographer: Guy Dufaux
Editor: Monique Fortier
Sound: Richard Besse
Music: François Dompierre
Cast: Louise Portal, Dominique Michel, Rémy Girard, Yves Jacques, Pierre Curzi, Geneviève Rioux, Daniel Brière, Dorothée Berryman, Gabriel Arcand
Production Company: National Film Board of Canada, Malofilm Group
Le déclin de l’empire américain is a brilliant black comedy of manners constructed around a series of satiric and witty conversations about sex, love and life between several Montreal academics who are friends or lovers, or both. One is a serial adulterer, another one is living with AIDS, and yet another has moved on from divorce to a sadomasochistic relationship.

The film begins serenely enough on a fine autumn afternoon when the maples are turning red and the clear waters of Lake Memphremagog stretch out like a diamond mirror, where the men, Rémy (Girard), Pierre (Curzi), Claude (Jacques) and Alain (Brière), are preparing a gourmet supper. Meanwhile, in the sterile grey interior of an ultra-modern downtown health club, the women, Dominique (Michel), Louise (Berryman), Diane (Portal) and Danielle (Rioux), are working out.

The women are discussing men; the men are talking about — what else — women. But there is nothing one-dimensional about the dialogue; the hyper-realist banter echoes the culture and fantasies of this group and their generation, from Germaine Greer to Masters & Johnson to olive-skinned men.

The group eventually gathers in the country and the evening proceeds in an amiable manner: Indo-Chinese factionalism discussed over hors d’oeuvres; the Pope and his prostate washed down with a fine vintage; and throughout, Rémy, Pierre, Claude and Alain persist with a series of lies. But as the evening unfolds and truths are revealed, the group not only confronts a fatal revelation from Dominique but the contradictions of their universe and its deceits, treachery and anguish. Dominique sums up the paradox: “This frenetic desire for individual happiness in our society may well be historically linked to the decline of the American empire that we are now beginning to witness.”

Just as Le chat dans le sac in 1964 was the rallying cry for a militant generation, Le déclin de l’empire américain might be considered its epitaph. In post–1980 referendum Quebec, Denys Arcand perfectly captures a society in transition, desperately seeking individual happiness. The fluent, ironic script strikes a balance between satire and realism that renders Le déclin de l'empire américain both a thought-provoking and completely entertaining film.

English-Canadian audiences embraced Le déclin de l'empire américain like no Québécois film since Claude Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine. It won numerous Genies, including best picture, director, editing and screenplay as well as international recognition, including the International Critics’ Prize at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for best foreign film.