By Ray Sawhill
People may compare “The Decline of the American Empire” to “The Big Chill” and “Hannah and her Sisters”; like them, it’s a comic talkfest that takes place in an atmosphere of hypocrisy and comfort. But this French-Canadian film has an unembarrassed, out-of-the-mainstream feel of its own, and no fake portentousness. The story concerns a group of academics gathering for dinner and talking about sex. These conversations — the locker-room talk of sophisticates — are often raucously funny. We recognize that the theories that get spun are expressions in abstract terms of the characters’ personal concerns; we may come to suspect that the “decline” of the film’s title refers to the older characters’ experience of middle age.
Denys Arcand, who wrote and directed, has conceived his film in thoroughly sexual terms; the camera takes us through the web of words and into the characters. When he flashes back, he shows more than his characters divulge — he takes us into their privacy — and all along, he cuts away to images of natural beauty. The relaxed performances and the cinematography, with its attentiveness to changes of light, give us a feel for the characters’ relationship to their flesh, and a sense of how sex to them isn’t merely an athletic pursuit, it’s an imaginative one.
Arcand’s approach has the result of giving sex — the unforeseen effects it can have and the variety of things it can mean to people — a many-hued splendor. In a sequence that begins on a pier at dusk and moves into the evening, we watch the clouds and the water, we hear one of the men wonder whether, if the Soviets bomb the States, he’ll be able to see the explosions, and we see the couples move (in various states of arousal and misery) into bed. This sequence has the emotionality of a nocturne; Arcand gives us the illusion that sex is spiraling around us.
©1986 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.