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The Decline Of The American Empire
cast: Rémy Girard, Dorothée Berryman, Dominique Michel, Louise Portal, and Pierre Curzi

writer and director: Denys Arcand
97 minutes (18) 1986
widescreen ratio 1.85:1
Artificial Eye DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 7/10
reviewed by Thomas Cropper
To guess from The Decline Of The American Empire, you'd think that the French are doing little else than having it away with one another's spouses. Certainly, of all the characters in Denys Arcand's battle of the sexes masterpiece, few if any seem capable of sticking with one person.
   The film is split into three distinct acts. First, in an unusual reversal of roles, we have the men preparing the food for a dinner part while their female counterparts relax in the city. As both sides talk about love, life and sex, we build up to the confrontational dinner party in the evening, before picking up the pieces in the third act the morning after.
   At the core of this movie is the battle of the sexes. A constant feeling of tension and conflict haunts the relationships throughout the movie and at the centre is the relationship between Rémy (Rémy Girard) and his wife played by Dorothée Berryman. As the women arrive for the party the two groups converge like something out of West Side Story. Two gangs ready to go to war.
   But what tensions there are seem to remain embedded beneath the surface. Everyone is achingly polite, nice and convivial. It's only through a series of flashbacks that we see the many betrayals and grudges that exist between the various sides and when one of the party comes out with a revelation that will destroy the lives of our central couple, the party blinks and carries on as normal. The damage has been done, but no one is showing it.
   But more than this, is the issue of decline, signposted in the title. The film is bookended by an interview with a scholar who explains her theory that the decline of any empire can be traced to the search for self-gratification among the people. When people become obsessed with their own happiness, she says, that's when an empire falls. That is true of all empires right up to the present day American empire.
   In a more personal way we see this happening within each of these characters. They are all standing on the brink of middle age and their own personal empires are all, in their own ways, beginning to collapse through their search for personal happiness. Of all the characters it seems to be only the youngest remains faithful. "I couldn't imagine being unfaithful," he says.
   "Neither could I at your age," Rémy replies. The decline, though imperceptible has begun and we end the movie with a quiet sense of unease about all their futures.
   This is a nice, gently moving film, beautifully acted and wonderfully shot. Although the drama lies beneath the surface you find yourself avidly following the action as Arcand weaves a magical web of intrigue, lust and loss. Seventeen years later the characters reconvened to shoot The Barbarian Invasions. We don't really see the end of the drama here - we see the beginning. In the next film we'll see the results.
   DVD extras are fairly basic with only filmographies and a trailer to keep you interested, but the film doesn't really need them.

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