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Film / The Decline of the American Empire

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The Decline of the American Empire (Le Déclin de l'empire américain) is a 1986 film from Canada—namely Quebec, so in French—directed by Denys Arcand and produced by the National Film Board of Canada.

A bunch of (mostly) middle-aged (mostly) university professors get together for a weekend. Remy and Louise are the hosts. Their guests include: middle-aged professor Pierre and his lover, Dominique, a history major half his age; Diane, a divorced history professor who also works for CBC radio; Claude, an art history professor and the only gay person in their social circle; Dominique, who has written a book about how the "American empire" is in terminal decline; and Alain, a younger man who is studying for his doctorate.

The men hang out at the house and prepare dinner while the women go out to the gym. Their talk is exclusively about sex, sex, and sex. Remy, an incorrigible womanizer, wishes that he could have four wives and says that sex with his wife is better after he cheats on her. Louise isn't aware of the enormous scale of her husband's infidelties but does know that he cheats on her sometimes—and then there was the time they went to an orgy. Claude claims that there is nothing more beautiful that the hindquarters of a 12-year-old boy. Diane tells a story about how she once had sex with an Italian dude on the beach. Guileless Alain mostly goggles at his libertine elders. As the evening wears on, events make clear that, despite how much the aging hippies mock conventional morality, they are not as content with their lives as they seem.

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Followed by a sequel, The Barbarian Invasions.


Tropes:

  • Bigger Is Better in Bed: Diane recounts how she was getting all into sex on the beach with some strapping Italian dude one time, and how disappointed she was when he took off his swim trunks and revealed a "miniscule" penis. The women then have a little argument about how much this matters.
  • Bourgeois Bohemian: The teachers are all vaguely left-wing types, and specifically, they pour scorn on conventional morality, what with Remy talking about how much he wishes he had a harem and Pierre telling stories about going to illicit massage parlors. They are also very much upper-crust intellectuals who drink fine wine and have fancy dinners by the lake, and they're all made ill at ease when Diane's crude, roughneck boyfriend Mario shows up. (Pierre calls Diane an "old hippie", and he means it as praise.)
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  • Cut Himself Shaving: When her friends notice a lot of scratches on Diane's back she implausibly claims she got injured in judo class. The truth is that she is in a sadomasochistic relationship with a biker named Mario. It isn't abuse, though; Diane clearly is deriving a lot of pleasure from being dominated.
  • Did You Just Have Sex?: The evening ends up with Alain and Dominique, left together after everybody else splits off, having sex. Diane and Claude spot them jogging past the house the next morning, Alain with a big grin on his face.
    Diane: (knowing look) You seem chipper.
    Alain: (grins wider) Country air does me good!
  • Epic Tracking Shot: The first scene is an unbroken tracking shot lasting a good four minutes, as the opening credits play out while the camera glides down through a long, long corridor at the university, finally finding Diane and Dominique by a window.
  • Extremely Short Timespan: Something less than 24 hours, from the afternoon before a dinner party to the next morning.
  • Fish out of Water: Mario, Diane's husky, distinctly working-class biker boyfriend, does not fit in well at all with the fancy professors at their fancy dinner. He asks for beer instead of wine, turns up his nose at Claude's fancy craft beer, boggles at how much all the guests talk about sex without having it, and leaves when it becomes clear that the dinner will not turn into an orgy.
  • Flashback: Flashbacks illustrate some stories, like Louise's attraction for her tennis instructor and the time Remy and Louise went to an orgy. Another flashback shows a story that is not shared, namely, how Danielle was a sex worker in a massage parlor when she met Pierre.
  • Gratuitous English: As Alain is nuzzling her the next morning and talking about taking her to bed, Dominique says "Words are cheap, baby" in English. Alain fails to understand so she just pulls him into an embrace.
  • Hands-On Approach: Louise remembers how turned on she used to get when her tennis instructor would put his arm around her when demonstrating how to swing the racket. One day she decided to make her move, only to be delayed at home, finding the instructor in the company of another woman when she finally got there.
  • Happy Ending Massage: How Danielle and Pierre met. She worked at a massage parlor and Pierre was a customer. The "special" at the massage parlor is a happy ending hand job, although customers can pay more for a blow job (Pierre settled for the handy.)
  • Kavorka Man: Alain is boggled by schlubby, ordinary-looking Remy's success with the ladies, saying "He's not that hamdsome."
  • Kimono Fanservice: When Danielle comes out to give Pierre his massage and "special", she's dressed in nothing but a silk kimono, with a touch of geisha-style makeup.
  • Left Hanging: Louise is shocked and crying after finding out about the epic scale of Remy's infidelities. He asks for forgiveness. The film ends without revealing if their marriage will survive. (In the sequel, they're divorced.)
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: Louise tells a story about one time that she and Remy went to an orgy. As the host of the orgy was humping away on top of her, his wife comes over and asks Louise if she's enjoying it.
  • Speech-Centric Work: Basically, 101 minutes of people talking about their sex lives and sharing their opinions about sex.
    Mario: All you do is talk!
  • Title Drop: Diane asks Dominique in the interview, "Is happiness linked to the decline of the American empire as we are now experiencing it?"
  • Woman Scorned: Dominique, who, behind the mask of calm, obviously resents Remy for having an affair with her and dumping her, while his wife is unaware. She drops the bomb after dinner about Remy and her and Diane, and Louise is deeply upset.
  • Your Cheating Heart: All of them! Remy probably wins, though, as during the evening it's related that he's had sex with Dominique and Diane as well as pretty much all the secretaries in his department at the university and his wife's sister. Louise, who knew about some of Remy's affairs at least and acted like she didn't care, has a weepy breakdown after finding out about Dominique and Diane.

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