The Decline of the American Empire (1986) (R)

Perhaps it's the candid conversations about sex that make "The Decline of the American Empire" so entertaining. Or maybe it's the intricate way that Denys Arcand manages to not condemn his characters and their intertwining bedsheets. Still possible, it's the culmination of a lot of ideas thrown into a blender, coming out a delicious puree with only a few lumps.
The movie concerns men and women and their perspectives on sex and life. The women are away at a gym, exercising and gossiping about all the things they've done while the men are back at home making dinner for the women and bragging about their sexual conquests. It's this silence that both men and the women are supposed to partake in. Gossip to your friends, but don't reveal too much, and then you can get back to your normal life. There are so many skeletons in so many closets that we begin to understand a simple truth: no one is completely honest, even with the people that they love.
For the men, women are a simple number. They are pleasured and pleasurable. For the women, the mental game of making men squirm is sometimes more enjoyable than the act of love making itself.
At times, "The Decline of the American Empire" feels like watching a play of Libertines having a massive, intellectual orgy. Yet the idea remains a thread throughout: what constitutes personal happiness?
If the answer is sexual prowess than all the characters involved must have some form of personal happiness. Yet, like any "home drama with friends" movie like "The Celebration" or "The Big Chill" we know that the shit is going to hit the fan and when it does, it's not going to be easy to clean up.
Naturally, the movie's comedy gets replaced by drama as the movie drives toward its final conclusion with the question still hanging in the air: what is love (baby don't hurt me)?
Sorry I couldn't resist.
The movie's actors are all in top form here, never breaking from character; but the movie is so dependent on its themes built from its characters that I feel listing all of them and their complexities would not do either of them justice.
Let's just keep this one vague for a little while.
Arcand chooses to shoot in only a few locations with the fervor and tenacity of Woody Allen, as well as the ease. His humor rolls off the tongue easily. His situations are never too complex nor too heart-breaking nor too humorous for his audience.
He trusts the viewer with a story that is short of plot, heavy on character and ideals.
But by the end of it all, he doesn't reach into a hat and try to pull forth an answer to it all, that would be too cheap and he knows it. Instead, Arcand is slyly suggesting about the ways of a society built on ideas of "man" and "woman" may be flawed.
The occupants of "The Decline of the American Empire" are all obsessed with fitting a stereotype while masquerading as different. There is no uniqueness here except for the uniqueness of a filmmaker.
If none of that made sense: it's a great movie.

Score: ★★★½

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