Witty, hilarious and very much relevant, Denys Arcand’s 1986 The Decline of the American Empire, a fast-paced intellectual tennis match, is the ultimate critique of modern capitalism and its consequences and an important philosophical assessment of human flaw.
One dismiss this masterpiece of philosophical cinema at their own peril… Argh! A bunch of upper middle class types, inside their narcissistic bubble, discussing sex and analysing senses and sentiments, which should be felt instead. Why should we listen to these somewhat provincial people, so self-centred in their perverted self-inflicted painful existence? Well, because what they have to say is what we do not want to hear. Simply because these Canadians, with their 80s haircuts and dubious fashion sense, speak of inescapable truths.
Scholar Dominique (Dominique Michel) explains to her journalist friend, Diane (Louise Portal), the central thesis of her new book: any civilisation shows its inexorable decline when there’s an increasing preoccupation with personal happiness. These two friends then meet with two other women, Louise (Dorothée Berryman) and Danielle (Geneviève Rioux), in the gym for a workout and to gossip about their sex lives. In a retreat house by a beautiful lake, Rémy (Rémy Girard), Pierre (Pierre Curzi), Claude (Yves Jacques) and Alain (Daniel Brière) also talk about sex, philosophy and literature while preparing dinner for the women, who are all connected to them some way or another.
These four pair of friends are either professors and students of the History Department at the University of Montreal or married to someone who is. When Mario, a group outsider who is having rough sex with Diane – and is different in age, class and mind-frame from the others – appears at the house, the group dynamics start to slowly shift. By the evening, after dinner, when Louise refutes Dominique’s thesis and proposes a different take on the modern world, her author friend spitefully reveals that Louise’s husband, Remy, and Danielle’s boyfriend, Pierre, both have slept with her. And just as anticipated by Dominique, as the personal takes over from the communal, tensions rise, and by the next morning the group seems permanently wounded.
..Sex, Happiness and Self-Preservation…
It soon becomes obvious that there’s an explicit irony in The Decline of the American Empire [Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain], where Dominique, the classic intellectual-cum-hedonist, denounces self-gratification as the cause for cultural disintegration and then goes on to describe her own narcissistic life. Even more interesting is the fact that the story revolves around the lives of eight upper middle class people, all highly intelligent and intellectualized, for which the mind seems to be their most important assets, and then they all seem stupid as stupid can be. How ironic then that these bunch of historians seem all to concentrate their efforts on the present, in their pursuit of hedonism.
It is as if their degrees and PhDs were of no use to them – their studies and scholarships, all a waste of time, as they seem unable to direct their intelligence, knowledge and wisdom towards a path which will lead to happiness. Even though Dominique recognises that the excessive preoccupation with the personal eventually leads to the destruction of the public, she seems unable to avoid the pattern. Perhaps, they’re incapable of connecting the theoretical with the practical. Or they just don’t give a damn to the preservation of their own civilization. Either way, it means dumb self-destruction or, as most don’t seem to have children, astonishingly selfish.
As the thesis goes – Dominique’s as well as Arcand’s film – the decline of civilisation occurs when the elite turns towards itself instead of concentrating on the public good. Thus the most pertinent question must be: How can any civilisation not decline? As man accumulates wealth (both on an individual and societal level), it seems inherent to his soul to want to satisfy his own needs and desires, first and foremost, and then exclusively. Apart from looking at him through a technological perspective, can anyone point out how modern man is really different from his counterpart in Mesopotamia?
Therefore, who can say that their attitude towards existence isn’t the best possible one? If it is indeed inevitable that the Barbarians will eventually invade anyway, then why not just enjoy the whole Bacchanalia? If you’re like them, who seem to believe that only the mind or the groin can take us closer to god then why think at all about the preservation of civilisation. The mind – which makes us think, conceptualise, contemplate the future and envision death – must be counterbalanced by Eros and the drive towards life. So, as they say, these guys have sex to scare old age and extinction.
Ultimately, these academics reveal a great deal of the dark side of the human condition. It is no use to us disliking them for ego-boosting’s sake. They are what they are, and even for those people who think of themselves as conventional as apple pie, they share a little bit of all of us. In fact, they are us.