WHAT'S IT ALL ABOUT?
Here's an early film from Denys Arcand—creator of Jesus of Montreal and the recent, highly regarded The Barbarian Invasions—that might remind you of Lawrence Kasdan's superior The Big Chill, but only superficially. Both films strive to examine the inner lives of a group of characters who are thrown together for a weekend and end up commiserating about sex and relationships and life in general. The difference is that Kasdan's film resonates with strong writing and emotionally powerful acting, whereas the writing and performances in Arcand's misfire are surprisingly uninvolving and stagey and arch. The voluminous dialog in The Decline of the American Empire feels written and fake—as if it's struggling under the weight of a heavy agenda—and the actors exhibit a universal flatness, as if they're all distanced from the material and unable to make any real connection save for an annoying, smirking playfulness followed by forced emotion.
For the first half of the film, the men and women are separated from each other. The women—Dominique (Dominique Michel), Louise (Dorothee Berryman), Diane (Louise Portal), and Danielle)—spend their time at a health club, running and swimming and working out as they discuss their oh-so-naughty sexual lives and fantasies. The men—Remy (Remy Girard), Claude (Yves Jacuqes), Pierre (Pierre Curzi), and Alain (Daniel Briere)—spend their time preparing the evening's feast as they share their own predictable and ostensibly evolved thoughts about sex. Finally, the two groups unite for dinner, and over fish they talk more about sex. And as much as the film wants to delve deeply into the sexual notions of our time, it absolutely wallows in cliché, leaving you aghast in your chair. You'll find a token gay man, effeminate in voice and wardrobe, and there's the anti-intellectual buffoon, Mario (Gabriel Arcand), who just wants a beer, and there's talk about small penises and boring female fantasies and the enticement of adultery and the boogeyman specter of AIDS and the naughty whisper of lesbianism and, oh, it goes on and on, and even after the film pulls a switcheroo and lets you know that it abhors these characters' glib, meaningless chatter, you've heard it all before and far more effectively.
There are flashbacks to the narrative, and they mostly involve adulterous or pseudo-intellectual encounters between our highly sexed characters. And as the third act begins, the film transitions into the realm of political and social commentary. There's a point at which the characters sit in their living room, drinking alcohol, listening to a social critic describe her political philosophy—the inevitable decline of empires based on an increasing need for instant gratification—and I had another Big Chill flashback—of Jeff Golblum interviewing Tom Berenger in a far more engaging scene. After the irritatingly smug self-consciousness of Decline of the American Empire's first two acts, the film's plunge into socio-political melodrama feels false.
Inexplicably, this French Canadian film was nominated for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film.
HOW'S IT LOOK?
Koch Lorber presents The Decline of the American Empire in a very nice anamorphic-widescreen transfer of the film's original 1.85:1 theatrical presentation. Detail is surprisingly fine, given that the film is going on 20 years old, with only a slight softness,. There's a filmlike depth to the proceedings, aided by accurate and hearty colors. Flesh tones are accurately presented, if a tad pasty, and in general there's an earthy warmth to the film's palette. It's a clean print, with nary a blemish. Blacks are deep and shadow detail is impressive. I noticed no digital artifacting or edge halos.
HOW'S IT SOUND?
The disc includes two French-language options: Dolby Digital 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0. The Dolby 5.1 track offers way too much activity in the surrounds, opening up the soundstage to a ridiculous degree. Voices come from all channels at once, giving them an unintended disembodied feel that's quite irritating. This is one instance where I actually prefer the 2.0 track, which at least takes the dialog back up to the front where it belongs. Besides this egregious flaw, sound quality at least has nice fidelity, and the score comes across well. But the 5.1 track is an extremely poor, unnecessary mix.
The included English Dolby Digital 2.0 is humorous in that it makes no attempt whatsoever to match lip movements in its translation. Also, the translation differs vastly from that of the also-included English subtitles, sometimes giving completely different meanings to certain sentences.
WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
All you get are the film's Trailer, and previews for a series of Koch Lorber films: La Dolce Vita, The Five Obstructions, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jesus of Montreal, In July, Pigalle, and Sister My Sister.
WHAT'S LEFT TO SAY?
The Decline of the American Empire is all hollow, smirky talk in service of a wobbly thesis. Call it a French-Canadian Big Chill, in which emotion feels unearned. Image quality is quite good, but audio is weirdly ruined by an included 5.1 track. The supplements are practically non-existent.