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'The Decline of the American Empire' (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 26, 1986

FRENCH-Canadian Denys Arcand predicts "The Decline of the American Empire" in this highly touted, hyper-intellectual gabfest in which eight academics let down their hair -- not to mention unbutton their vests, unzip their lips and let fly all their innermost libidinal secrets. It gives a whole new meaning to Night School.

Homosexuals, masochists, satyrists and plain old philanderers: If there's a multisyllabic word for it, these college professors have tried it and are ready to discuss it ad infinitum. It's as if Dr. Ruth had dinner with Andre and wrote the script for this collegiate comedy, acted by an erudite cast of French-Canadian entertainers.

The consenting cognoscenti are all close friends and history professors at a Quebec university. Writer-director Arcand, a historian himself, uses these erotic neurotics to make the connection between private foibles and socio-political decline. His points range from the plausible to the implausible, but he does consistently engage the brain instead of the glands.

Arcand states his hypothesis through Dominique, head of the university's history department and author of a book called "Variations on the Idea of Happiness." In a radio interview, she cites the breakup of the nuclear family, women's rise to power and the quest for personal joy as warning signs of the empire's decline.

Arcand sexually segregates the cast -- the women pump iron at the gym while the men stay home to fix a truite en croute. (It's come to this, has it?) In general, they're all so self-absorbed that neither sex can understand, much less forgive, the other's failings -- be it PMS or testosterone overdose.

The straight men envy their gay colleague's good fortune -- "living with someone who doesn't menstruate." Meanwhile, the women enjoy a steambath and giggle over the best techniques for erection reversal. This may account for the fact that none of these nasty jaybirds has any kids.

These are promiscuous eunuchs, so self-analytical as to be dead inside. Diane (Louise Portal), a divorced history professor, can only find renewal in an affair with sadist Mario (Gabriel Arcand). Then there's randy Remy (Remy Girard), short-circuiting Pierre (Pierre Curzi), and the ailing gay member of the group, Claude (Yves Jacques), who shapes his pastry dough into his favorite form -- the butt of a 12-year-old boy -- and wonders how his straight friends can bear to get near women, with all their diseases.

Aside from naive newcomer Alain (Daniel Briere), the only remotely likable characters are Louise (Dorothe'e Berryman), deluded wife of Remy, and the ingenue Danielle (Genevieve Rioux), a young history student who dates Pierre, whom she met while working her way through school at a massage parlor. (At a crucial moment, she regaled him with the British unemployment figures for the year 1860.)

The friends stop talking sex only in mixed company, a wry observation on the part of Arcand, who combines the jabbering intimacy of French filmmaker Eric Rohmer with the invasiveness of a proctologist. "The Decline of the American Empire" is certainly the year's most intellectual work, a frequently funny, unrepressed meditation on midnight in North America. It's the kind of warning you'd expect from a middle-aged, over-educated male, going soft 'round the middle and figuring the world is too. THE DECLINE OF THE AMERICAN EMPIRE (R) --

In French with subtitles at the Key.

Copyright The Washington Post

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