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The Decline of the American Empire

The Subtlety of Irony


In both The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal, there is a passing mention to Milan Kundera, and perhaps director Denys Arcand would say that, not unlike the great Czech writer, he is a filmmaker interested in ideas in fictional form, and also in what Kundera calls in The Art of the Novel, ‘consubstantial irony’: the irony of ambiguity. Both the titles of The Decline of the American Empire and The Barbarian Invasions are predicated on theses: the first concerns a book the single, career-driven historian Dominique (Dominique St Arnaud) has written where she talks about the pursuit of personal happiness reflecting the decline of great civilizations; while the second is a comment made on television by pundit Alain Lussier offering what he sees as the potential invasions into American life, after 9/11, by people less fortunate than those in the West. Indeed the three films could all be seen as thesis-driven: even without the titular implications of The Decline… and Barbarian Invasions. While The Decline of the American Empire concerns itself chiefly with hedonism and sexual pleasure; Jesus of Montreal searches out the problem of faith in a media-oriented world, and The Barbarian Invasions constantly shows the importance of money. Sex, religion, and money; dinner table discussions only the impolite are willing to tackle, and yet The Decline of the American Empire is formally interested in the dinner party that stretches well beyond its parameters, while also making it the event that holds the film together, just as Jesus of Montreal is narratively contained by the nativity play the characters put on in the public parks of Montreal, and Barbarian Invasions focuses on the hospitalisation and death of its leading character. What interests Arcand in all three films is formal containment through a particular event, but a bagginess that can also offer social critique: perhaps aptly for a director who has made a number of socio-politically oriented documentaries, and whose degree is in history.

However, despite the agenda-driven nature of his films, there is a nice comment Arcand offers in an online interview where the interviewer asks Arcand what he would like a film to say to someone and the director replies, “next time you’re going to a restaurant and the waiter comes near you and says “what are you going to have tonight?” this waiter may be my character. So, you know, looks at him in a different light. He’s a human being and he might have just lived through what you saw on the screen.” The tension in Arcand’s work perhaps resides in this interest in observing character and saying something, in documenting a situation and imposing a thesis. Comparing himself to a football coach, Arcand says “It’s not you who is playing. You are not on the field. You design the strategy, you choose the personnel and then, if you’re a good coach, you have to adapt.” Some might argue that there is a sense in Arcand’s work of the coach who manages to rig the game: someone whose theoretical impetus is stronger than his observational acumen, but rather than attacking Arcand for over-statement, perhaps we can defend him not only for his consubstantial irony, as we’ll explore, but also for his contrapuntalism: for creating a tension between the idea and the character, between social critique and personal expression, between the cinematically conventional and the formally suggestive.

In The Decline of the American Empire Arcand works in an initial irony as he moves towards the dramatic centrepiece of the meal. The women work out at the gym while the men are at home preparing the food: Remy (Remy Girard), who is married to one of the women working out, Louise (Dorothee Berryman),  the gay Claude, the loved-up Pierre, and the single Alain. They talk mainly about sex, just as the women do likewise: Louise, Dominique, divorcee Diane and Pierre’s girlfriend Danielle. What interests Arcand here isn’t so much the socio-political irony of the women at the gym and the men cooking dinner; more situations that can lead to revelation. Is it that each group escapes the egotism of their role in the environment that they are presently in that leads to such revealing? If the men went to the gym and the women were cooking, might there have been something in the gender roles that would have reinforced competitiveness instead of leading to casual confession? Arcand here appears to have absorbed Eric (My Night at Maud’sClaire’s Knee) Rohmer’s dictum that it is not so much what people do but what they think about when they’re doing it. By having female characters working out and the men cooking, Arcand isn’t making a socio-political statement (the idea), but creating plausible environments for conversation (the dramatic). Of course someone could say this is the critic allowing his own sexism in through the back door: but is it sexist to say it is likely if the men were at the gym the focus would have been more on competitively working out; and if the women stayed at home on more efficiently putting the meal together? We’re suggesting finally no more than that Arcand’s socio-political irony is contained by dramatic integrity: he may push the idea, but he contains it within characterisational specifics, within the need for personal expressivity, and plays up the contrary roles to allow for the characters to reveal themselves.

This is not quite the same thing as saying Arcand is always a subtle filmmaker, and we may have a problem with the films’ devices not always because the thesis imposes itself on the work, but that Arcand hasn’t quite found the most nuanced way to register a situation. Or then again, perhaps he has. Near the end of The Decline of the American Empire, Dominique announces to the group that she has slept with both Remy and Pierre, and Louise cannot readily believe that Remy would betray her with one of her own friends. Dominique announces it after Louise reckons she thinks awareness is vitally important, and so Dominique cruelly illustrates exactly how blind Louise has been: everybody but Louise knows that Remy is an incorrigible womaniser. If this blow isn’t hard enough, Dominique exacerbates it accidentally. Unable to sleep, Louise goes out onto the balcony and overhears Dominique talking to Alain. As Dominique explains Remy slept with Diane for two years, and then adds anyone in a skirt, so the camera tilts up and zooms in on Louise above. Arcand offers surprise rather than expectation here: the last we have seen of Louise is where she is lying next to Remy in bed, so we don’t assume that she will be listening to the conversation taking place in the garden. Would it have been subtler to have shown Louise on the balcony before Dominique’s revelation, or can we see that the tilt zoom is empathic more than emphatic: a shot capturing for Louise the depth of betrayal, and a revelation at the same time of her husband’s infidelities and the social norms to which Louise seems oblivious.

When we first see her sitting in the garden, Dominique explains why she said that she had slept with Remy: “It’s one thing I can’t stomach…lack of awareness. People who are unable to see reality.” Yet Arcand’s shot is interesting from the angle of revelation. It is undeniably emphatic, but also empathic: it finds in film form the equivalent of a shock to the system that is simultaneously personal and socio-political. The reality Louise fails to see is the promiscuous reality of which she is not a part, which makes her unable to see the reality, but also capable of values that are hardly contemptible: she seems to have been a good mother and wife. Now Dominique’s initial revelation comes after Louise wonders whether Dominique creates theories to justify her unhappiness, and Louise sees no reason why she herself can’t be aware and at the same time happy. This is when Dominique casually announces that she’s slept with Remy and Pierre. Moments after announcing it, Arcand offers the briefest of flashbacks where Remy and Dominique are in bed together, and because of the order of the shots, the flashback would seem to belong to Louise rather than Remy and Dominique and thus not strictly a flashback at all – more an image that comes to Louise’s mind and, again, an empathic shot. If Arcand was simply interested in condemning Louise’s inability to see reality, then perhaps he would have shown us the flashback from Remy’s perspective, or even Dominique’s, and the eavesdropping moment in a simple cross-cut between Dominique and Louise.

However, while Louise shows clearly a failure to see reality, there are certain realities that we fail to see that reveal much about a character’s ethical obliviousness, and others that show ethical well-being. For example, if one were unable to see the exploitation of workers, unable to see that the country we live in is becoming increasingly impoverished as the country is ransacked by the wealthy class, a person’s obliviousness would reveal a socio-political ignorance. Louise’s though, is one predicated on certain assumptions about the emotional health of her marriage that aren’t actually valid, but it is as though Arcand is saying that her blindness is an ignorance the film is not entirely unsympathetic towards. In The Culture of Narcissism, published at the end of the seventies, Christopher Lasch addresses some of the very issues that Arcand looks at here. Indeed, Lasch’s sub-title: ‘American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations’ could easily have been Arcand’s. Describing modern relationships, Lasch says, “both men and women have come to approach personal relations with a heightened sense of appreciation of their emotional risks. Determined to manipulate the emotions of others while protecting themselves against emotional injury, both sexes cultivate a protective shallowness.” This would say much more about Dominique, and indeed Diane with whom Remy had a two-year affair and who is now in a relationship based almost exclusively on the pleasures of sex, than Louise – who is undeniably emotionally committed to her husband. We can’t deny that Louise is blind to the realities Dominique informs her of intentionally and unintentionally, but Dominique can hardly claim her revelations put her in the sort of righteous place a journalist is in when exposing the exploitation of miners, or of sweat shop factories the West benefits from. There is here undeniably a degree of Kundera’s consubstantial irony in Arcand’s approach. Louise’s ignorance is unequivocally and not unjustifiably exposed, but Dominique hardly claims any high ground in the revelation, while the shot of Remy and Dominique in bed seen from Louise’s sense of realisation, and the tilting zoom into Louise on the balcony, show aesthetically the film creating fellow feeling with Louise more than with Dominique. After all, in this second shot, Arcand could have allowed it to reflect Dominique’s feelings rather than Louise’s: the horrifying sudden awareness that the person you have been talking about has been listening to what you have been saying. But in this instance, Dominique remains oblivious, unaware that she is destroying a woman’s assumptions a floor above her.  Arcand might be an ironist, but there is subtlety at work too.

In all three films – in Jesus of Montreal and The Barbarian Invasions also – Arcand nevertheless still practices to varying degrees a polemical irony, as if searching for a value within the films that indicates social critique without quite arriving at the categorical. In The Barbarian Invasions, the sexual and the cultural aspects of the earlier film give way to the medical and the monetary. Here the director brings back some of the characters from The Decline of the American Empire, and focuses much more centrally on Remy as he lies dying in a hospital bed. His estranged son, Sebastien, who works in international finance, flies over from London, and though probably not far into his thirties, Sebastien (Stephane Rousseau) is already a millionaire. At the beginning the film offers a lengthy steadicam shot through the hospital corridors; a chaos of ill bodies as the nurse weaves her way through. When Sebastien arrives he decides he doesn’t want his father to be cooped up with others and finds an empty and unfurnished room that he pays the union to do up. Sebastien is someone who functions off a variation of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote: he knows the price of everyone and the value of everything, and once again Arcand offers a degree of ambiguous irony in how we ought to perceive this wealthy young man. At one moment the very nurse we see at the beginning rails against Remy for being rude to his son: isn’t he by his bedside when many another child doesn’t bother even visiting their parents while they are in hospital? Hasn’t he come from the other side of the world to be with him? Yet later on, when Sebastien is irate over his father’s many infidelities and the breaking up of his parent’s marriage, Louise doesn’t so much remind Sebastien as tell him of his father’s good qualities: when Sebastien was so young he wouldn’t remember, Remy cradled him in his arms as he nursed him back to health during an illness that could have killed him. Sebastien has wealth enough to fly across the world and be the good son, but not quite the wealth of memories to remember how his father was actually there for him as a boy.

Barbarian Invasions is a much darker film, literally, than The Decline of American Empire (both films, like Jesus of Montreal, were shot by Guy Dufaux), but also less cynical, and therefore, from a certain perspective, more optimistic. Both films conclude similarly, with a series of what Noel Burch would call ‘pillow shots’ – cuts to information that doesn’t further narrative but instead generates meaning for it. Burch was talking of Japanese director Yazujiro Ozu’s cutaways to nature, to trains, to clothes lines. Shortly before the end of Barbarian Invasions, the film cuts from Remy’s dying hand to a couple of shots of nature: a ground shot viewing a cluster of trees above, and a shot of the sky. The Decline of the American Empire ends on a shot of the sky before the credits are played over snowy shots of Montreal in a different season from when the film has been set. In the first film, nature contains the essential frivolity of the characters’ lives, while in the later one death hangs over the film and concludes it. The pillow shot contextualises the first film; but deepens the second, in the sense that in the former the characters might seem shallow next to the potential meaning of life, but in the latter the film is set against the meaning of death, and Arcand’s palette reflects this. Desire is a summery pursuit, Arcand could be saying, as he sets The Decline of the American Empire in what looks like the height of summer, while death is an autumnal time, evident in some of the cutaways as Remy and Sebastien drive out of the city and into the country with Arcand giving us a number of shots of nature that aren’t at all Remy’s point of view on the beauty of nature, nor quite shots of the countryside as they pass it on the bus. This is the film telling us of a world that will contain Remy as part of nature more than part of life. It reminds one of a comment Henry Miller made about wishing to come back as a park. The womanising Remy will have to settle for becoming part of the fertility of nature, rather than generating pleasure from his own loins.

If The Decline of the American Empire deals with the pleasure principle, and Barbarian Invasions the drive of death, doesn’t Jesus of Montreal tackle the problem of totems and taboos: of the issue of belief in the modern world? Arcand isn’t always subtle, of course, and the first half of Jesus of Montreal would seem too keen to attack the superficiality of the Canadian media, but we may wonder whether if Arcand’s irony here isn’t only consubstantial and polemical but also symbolic? Throughout, Arcand draws analogies with the Christ story, with Lothaire Bluteau the Jesus figure Daniel who gathers around him several actors with which to stage the nativity story, and where he re-enacts scenes of biblical fury: most obviously in the sequence where he destroys the cameras when one of his actors auditions for an advert. As she is asked to remove her clothes, Daniel sees ritual humiliation and turns over the technology: an obvious echo of Jesus’s angry response to the merchants trading in the temple. The actors who work with Daniel lack the numerical clout of the twelve disciples, but they possess a proselytizing intensity as they back Daniel’s attempt at questioning the media and hypocritical morality. In the late twentieth century it isn’t loaves and fishes that are multiplied, but images in all their manifestations, and at one moment Daniel calls the very multiplication of Jesus figurines into question. As a priest says to him that most believers aren’t interested in archeological finds in the Middle East but only whether Jesus loves them, Daniel says, “that justifies selling plastic statues of Jesus and bottles of St Joseph’s oil for $15.” It doesn’t take miracles to reproduce something many times; indeed it might be the opposite – as if the sacred lies in the miracle of loaves and fishes reproduced; the profane in its technological equivalent.

In an interview in Films and Filming, Arcand says that the idea for the film came to him when he auditioned an actor who was playing Jesus in the nativity play. “How could this young actor say every night, ‘Whoever would save his life would lose it’ and the next morning audition for an erotic movie or beer advert?” “It is through this contradiction that Jesus of Montreal was born”, he says, with Arcand it seems careful to say contradiction rather than hypocrisy. The film offers symbolic irony in showing the absurdity of a contemporary Christ: put an ascetic young man in contemporary urban civilization and the irony will be promptly evident; draw analogies with Jesus and the symbolism somehow tempers the irony taking into account another comment Arcand makes in the Films and Filming interview. Talking about the relationship between The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal and the problem of faith, morality and spirituality, he says “that’s exactly the relationship between the two films. At the breakfast scene at the end of Decline these people are very empty and they don’t know what they’re going to do. Once you have your BMW and your fashionable cottage on the lake and so on, what do you do with the rest of your life?” Jesus of Montreal shows a character unwilling to live for the material items.

However, the three films in one form or another might offer social critique but that doesn’t reduce the characters to ciphers: hence the consubstantial and contrapuntal dimension. The characters may as Arcand suggests be sitting around emptily over breakfast in The Decline of the American Empire, but the pleasure principle is still available to a number of the characters: Dominique and Alain seem to have spent an enjoyable night together, and Diane is still having the best sex of her life with her lover – no matter if earlier in the film she admitted that she ought to end it as it is becoming ever more extreme. Arcand certainly talks about the emptiness of the character’s lives (thesis), but he shows also the pleasures, however ephemeral, of that life and thus gives us a feeling of enacted drama: this is often a hollow life but is also in many ways a good one. When he talks of the cottage in The Decline of the American Empire, we see it in summer and, in the closing credits, in winter, and its beauty is not ignored, just as the characters pleasures are hardly irrelevant. In The Barbarian Invasions there are scenes where the characters sit around in Remy’s hospital room eating and drinking, and Arcand does not show it as insensitivity towards Remy’s illness, but a sensual relationship with the world of food and drink.

Arcand might admire the actor Lothaire Bluteau, whom he says “is like an angel”. “This man is the only actor I know whom I could put in a warm bath being rubbed by a beautiful French actress and there’s no sexual atmosphere, just friendship or pure love or whatever…I go to restaurants and he looks at me eating and has a coffee.” (Films and Filming) Yet Arcand offers this admiration from the position of his own pleasure principle, and finally what makes his work interesting isn’t discursive rectitude, but the tension between the pleasures of living in this world, with a broader sense of meaning as to why we are here. Arcand’s perspective is not unpolemical. But the consubstantial irony and the contrapuntal interest in characters who can be seen from both sides, gives The Decline of the American Empire, as well as the later works we’ve touched upon also, a low-key wisdom.

©Tony McKibbin