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‘The Decline of the American Empire’ (NR)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 25, 1986

If you took two episodes of "Donahue" examining the battle of the sexes and excised Big Phil, you'd end up with something like "The Decline of the American Empire."

The movie concerns the sexual escapades of a group of French Canadian intellectuals. Or rather, the way they talk about their sexual escapades, for, as director Denys Arcand cuts back and forth from the menfolk preparing dinner to the womenfolk working out at the gym, they seem to do little else. They talk. And they talk. And finally, they stop talking. To do what?

Listen to a radio interview that one of them had conducted with another.

From the opening shot, an endless, unmotivated dolly move up a corridor that conveys no information, establishes neither theme nor setting and serves no other purpose, you know that you are in the presence of true film ineptitude, which only deepens as "The Decline of the American Empire" continues.

As a director, Arcand is a washout. The basic conceit only insulates you from reality -- the men are only pretending to cook, the women only pretending to work out. Arcand intends this clumsy device to be subversive, since the men are homemakers, the women athletes. If this is subversive, God help the '80s.

As a writer, Arcand is worse. The dialogue is overly literary, the action mostly offstage, recounted in flashbacks. While "The Decline of the American Empire" has been called " 'The Big Chill' with a PhD," the comparison only reminds you what a fine craftsman Lawrence Kasdan is. In "The Big Chill," Kasdan managed to differentiate vividly a large ensemble and made you feel those differences through the way the characters developed in relation to one another. Arcand, on the other hand, ignores even the most basic elements of dramatic construction. For the most part, his characters don't act or conflict with each other -- they just talk.

And to what purpose? Certainly, Arcand doesn't pursue a theme. The title comes from the movie's thesis, which is that as an empire declines, people become preoccupied with their personal lives -- a theme that is introduced expeditiously at the outset, and just as expeditiously dropped. And certainly, he's not interested in his characters. Why do they talk so cynically about sex? Why do they all seem to treat sex like confetti? Well, Arcand isn't interested.

No, the sex talk is there merely to titillate an audience that it has, apparently, found in the cities where it has opened. The humor is crude and familiar: A man approaches a prostitute and, ho ho, it's a male transvestite| The self-consciously arch dialogue is studded with Gallic epigrams: "Lying is the basis of all love affairs"; "Disease is part of sex"; "In sex, practice makes perfect."

But "The Decline of the American Empire" doesn't even have the courage of its own milk-and-water shock effects. After nearly 90 minutes of naughty lip-flapping, the drama finally begins, through which you discover that nobody really meant it -- their bark was worse than their bite, Arcand says, and at heart, they really care about marriage and intimacy.

For a certain segment of the audience, that will be comforting -- having been brought to the brink of (gasp|) infidelity, they can go home safe, their values endorsed, their dark sexual thoughts neutered and purged. But for most of the audience finding out that they didn't mean it will just seem a hollow cheat. For all you care about these gassy academics, it wouldn't matter if they meant every word.

"The Decline of the American Empire" is unrated but contains nudity, profanity and sexual situations.

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