Eight friends, four women and four men, most of them academics, spend a sunny September day chatting about culture, history, food and sex – mainly sex. The men, history professors Rémy and Pierre, their gay friend Claude, an art historian, and teaching assistant Alain, spend the afternoon in a comfortable country house by the lake preparing dinner. Meanwhile the women, history professor Dominique, contract instructor Diane, undergraduate student Danielle and Rémy’s wife, Louise, are working out at the gym. As day turns into night and the friends gather at the country house, the pleasantly naughty conversation turns sour when Rémy’s affair with Dominique is revealed to Louise. Tears and screams, apologies and supplications last but a few moments before civility reasserts itself. The morning after, nothing is resolved.
Denys Arcand’s Le déclin de l’empire américain marks an important turning point in the history of Quebec cinema as its first film to have been at once an extraordinary box office hit and an international critical triumph. In 1986, it became the top-grossing film of all time within the French-speaking province, surpassing even Spielberg’s E.T. (1982). It enjoyed a tremendous success at Cannes, and was the first Canadian film to be nominated for an Oscar in the foreign-language category (which it lost to Fons Rademakers’s The Assault). This unprecedented feat injected great optimism in the Quebec film industry and triggered a sustained flow of successful production activity. Arcand eventually surpassed the success of Le déclin with its sequel, Les invasions barbares (2003), which exceeded the domestic and international earnings of its predecessor and finally captured the foreign-language Oscar that had eluded Arcand in 1986 and 1989 with Jésus de Montréal.
Le déclin’s strong appeal rests in its perfect balance between bawdy entertainment, incisive social commentary and contemplative audiovisual poetry. Most of the film comprises amusing anecdotes as the characters relate various sexual experiences. While the men talk about threesomes with horny hitchhikers and fleeting but intense affairs with brilliant colleagues during academic conferences, the women reminisce about their laughable encounters with muscular men sadly endowed with tiny penises and memorable flings with passionate but hopelessly immature foreigners. Arcand often uses flashbacks to illustrate these tales, for instance, when Rémy recounts his attempt to find a prostitute for a visiting scholar from Africa, Mustafa. The prostitute he eventually approaches, a gorgeous blonde, turns out to be a man in drag. First, Rémy wittily suggests to the prostitute that having sex with his black friend would represent a gesture of generosity towards Africa comparable to singing in ‘We are the World’. The punchline then follows with the surprise revelation that ‘she’ is a he, to which Rémy responds ‘Oh boy!’
This flashback is a good example of how Arcand skilfully mixes humour with social commentary. That a white man would seek to find a white woman for a black man is, in and of itself, an intriguing variation on traditional sexual politics in North America. The more significant aspect of the scene, however, is Rémy’s failure to realise that this ideal woman is in fact a man. As I have argued elsewhere,1 that Rémy, who has slept with hundreds of women, could not tell the difference between a woman and a man dressed as one is of crucial importance. One of the central points of this film is the changing relations between men and women in the 1980s. Tellingly, when the women arrive at the country house, half-way through the film, Arcand purposefully shoots the first encounter between the two groups as a duel, opposing enemy clans visually divided along gender lines. While males and females now share positions of power – in fact, Dominique is the Chair of the History Department and as such she is the ‘boss’ – Rémy and Pierre still cling to an idea of women as inferior objects of pleasure. This is the subtextual purpose of the men’s erotic anecdotes: a desperate attempt to hold on to fantasies of sexual dominance. Much of the film revolves around the men’s inability to accept the new gender dynamics and their deep-rooted rejection of the idea of malefemale equality. For 1980s men who see their patriarchal certainties challenged by feminism (with all those jokes about small penises and infantile men), women have now become too much like men; even gorgeous blondes are revealed to be men underneath their alluring outfits and make-up.
There are numerous hints peppered throughout the film that insinuate that independent 1980s women – from the point of view of declining North American patriarchy – have become men in drag. For instance, after one of Claude’s stories about cruising on Mont-Royal and the scariest gay bars of St. Pauli in Hamburg, he adds disparagingly, ‘Knowing I have to be home at six, ‘cause the old lady has supper waiting would kill me’. Rémy interjects, ‘the old lady or the old man’. To which Claude tellingly replies, ‘Same thing’. Regardless of their sexual orientations, the four men all trade in traditional hegemonic masculinity, eager to maintain the feminine (whether it is embodied by women or by feminised men) in its position of subordination. In fact, Rémy all but concedes that he would prefer to dispose of women altogether and just be with men. He jokingly proposes that AIDS is the only real disadvantage to being gay; that and having to kiss a moustached mouth. Without AIDS, Rémy proclaims, ‘homosexuality would be paradise on earth’. That Claude might have contracted the disease is of marginal significance within the dominant heterosexual male discourse that Arcand puts at the centre of his critical perspective.
Even the fifth man who joins the group briefly, Mario, Diane’s macho working-class boyfriend whom Arcand describes as an ‘unbelievable sadomasochistic rocker’, 2 is implicitly presented as a reluctant heterosexual. On the surface, Mario is very different from the four intellectuals. He is tough, a genuine Québécois who speaks joual (French Canadian slang) rather than mid-Atlantic standard French like the professors, does not indulge in foreign foods, and prefers domestic beer over expensive imports. However, in spite of his rugged masculinity, there remain significant elements of his character that link him to the other men. First, his tough-guy persona is queered, as it were, rendered ‘unbelievable’, by the fact that he wears mascara. Furthermore, on the few occasions when Mario is present on screen, he is visually aligned with Claude, and there unfold peculiar games of seduction between the two men. More importantly, Mario’s sexual interest in men is expressly stated by Diane. ‘He’s never made love to me normally’, she confides in Dominique, ‘always from behind, like a man’. That Arcand specifically chooses this formulation – ‘like a man’ – has the effect of turning Mario and Diane’s S&M affair into what is essentially a relationship between two men. For the dwindling male protagonists, strong, liberated 1980s women, therefore, have become men. And as such, Arcand suggests, traditional heterosexual relationships as defined by patriarchy are now doomed to fail; as happens to Rémy and Louise’s marriage at the end of the film. Arcand appears to suggest that to move forward men must fundamentally change the parameters of their interactions with women. But within the narrative limits of the film, there seems to be little hope that this will be achieved anytime soon.
Something else is doomed in Le déclin de l’empire américain: Quebec itself. For Arcand, Quebec is dying off. In 1980, a referendum on Quebec’s separation from the rest of Canada failed to realise the nationalist dream that had ignited debates for the past 20 years (in 1995 another referendum led to the same negative result). For Arcand the failure of the referendum signified the end of Quebec history. Significantly, Quebec history stands out as a meaningfully structured absence in the film, with only one explicit reference to it: the brief appearance of Michel Brunet’s book Notre passé, le présent et nous (1976), which Mario offers Diane as a gift.
Brunet was a celebrated Quebec historian who had been Arcand’s professor during his days at the Université de Montréal in the early 1960s. He was renowned for his passionate lectures on the past, present and future of Quebec. Arcand’s characters are in complete opposition to Brunet. Nowhere in the film do those historians display any of Brunet’s optimistic devotion to the nation’s collective destiny. When Diane shows Brunet’s book to Claude, the two remain conspicuously silent. The shot of the book is held long enough to notice that the only sounds heard are those of birds, cicadas and leaves rustling in the wind. While these ambient noises have their own significance, to which I will return presently, the two characters’ silence expresses their utter indifference towards Brunet. Other historians are afforded respect. European historians Fernand Braudel and Arnold Toynbee, for instance, are cited in the film as models, whose substantial accomplishments as scholars are used precisely to counterpoint the failure of Arcand’s characters as intellectuals. But when Brunet comes up, silence.
Politically, Arcand is thus undeniably cynical (he would say ‘realistic’) about the fate of this small island of French culture lost in the middle of a massive Anglo-American ocean. But underneath this pessimism lies a deeper layer of affect that redeems the film and renders it ironically life affirming. The birds, cicadas and rustling leaves that emphasise Diane and Claude’s silence offer a hint of where salvation might reside in Arcand’s world. Indeed, as laughably juvenile as the sex jokes might be and as depressingly apolitical as those pedestrian academics might appear, their beautiful natural surroundings inject a strong dose of lyricism in this otherwise sardonic narrative. While the average spectator is amused by the lecherous anecdotes, and the ‘serious critic’ is captivated by Arcand’s caustic dissection of patriarchy and the dying nation, the cinephile finds poignant poetry in the visual and musical backdrop that sustains this comically moribund group of hopeless baby-boomers.
As the tone of the film becomes darker and increasingly cynical, the environment becomes more eerily attractive. As Dominique speaks in voice-over of the irreversible disintegration of North American civilisation in the late twentieth century, beautiful images of Lac Mephrémagog are shown as classical music and the soothing sounds of nature are heard. As the group of friends takes an after-dinner stroll in the forest by the shore, their decadent mediocrity as the useless intellectual elite of a failing society is absolved by the lake, the trees and the fog. Accompanying music plays a central role in the process, lessening the derisive tone of the dialogue. Not only does it counterpoint Dominique’s doomsday lecture, it also romanticises the relationship between Diane and Mario, as brief inserts of what seems to be moments of rough intercourse are made almost tender by the soundtrack.
Music and the landscape thus work together aesthetically not to erase the melancholy of the characters, but to make their morose fate bearable, even pleasant. The filmmaker’s point might ultimately be to show that, as much as resisting inevitable decline is futile, finding some happiness in appreciating nature, taking pleasure in friendship and enjoying the arts remain vital human endeavours.
1. For further elaboration of this and other themes in the film, see André Loiselle Denys Arcand’s ‘Le Déclin de l’empire américain’ and ‘Les Invasions barbares’, Toronto, Buffalo and London, University of Toronto Press, 2008.
2. Loiselle, p. 43.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Canada. Production Company: Malofilm, Image M & M, National Film Board of Canada. Director: Denys Arcand. Producers: Roger Frappier and René Malo. Screenwriter: Denys Arcand. Cinematographer: Guy Dufaux. Music: François Dompierre. Editor: Monique Fortier. Cast: Dorothy Le déclin de l’empire américain/The Decline of the American Empire (1986) 189 Berryman (Louise), Pierre Curzi (Pierre), Rémy Girard (Rémy), Dominique Michel (Dominique), Yves Jacques (Claude), Louise Portal (Diane), Genevève Rioux (Danielle), Daniel Brière (Alain), Gabriel Arcand (Mario).]
Michel Coulombe, Denys Arcand : la vraie nature du cineaste, Montréal, Boréal, 1993.
Réal La Rochelle, Denys Arcand: A Life in Film, Toronto, McArthur, 2005.
André Loiselle and Brian McIlroy, eds, Auteur/ Provcateur: The Films of Denys Arcand, Westport, CT, Greenwood Press, 1995.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.