The Decline of the American Empire (1986) was the first French Canadian production to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. It’s a talky, largely sedentary movie that feels much like a hybrid of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) and The Big Chill (1983). Directed by Denis Arcand, who would go on to win an Oscar for The Barbarian Invasions (2003), The Decline of the American Empire is all about a group of academics in their late 30s who gather with their spouses for a dinner party at a rambling country estate. But under a veneer of wine-fueled bonhomie, long held dark secrets and grievances begin to bubble to the surface. And before the night is over, every one of those slights, disputes and betrayals will be given a full and thorough airing.
Viewed today, The Decline of the American Empire s like a 1980s time capsule unearthed by archeologists and filled with the impedimenta of a generation. The quasi-mullet haircuts, big shoulder dresses and Jane Fonda workout clothes are nothing short of a hoot, along with the characters’ rampant materialism caused by the era’s illusions of prosperity. There’s even a closeted gay character (Yves Jacques) who has long lived a promiscuous secret life, and may be developing symptoms of AIDS. And speaking of sex, every character in this film, regardless of orientation, is utterly obsessed with it. These former hippies may have given up notions of political revolution, but the idea of Free Love still resonates. And you thought the only things French Canadians cared about were hockey and poutine.
The Decline of the American Empire is a modestly pleasurable watch - its sexual frankness no longer the least bit shocking by today’s standards - but its real value is as a piece of film history. Its Oscar nomination put the Quebec movie industry on the map, and served as an inspiration to area filmmakers who refused to fully assimilate into Canada’s dominate anglophone culture. Directors like Jean-Marc Vallée, Denis Villeneuve and Xavier Dolan owe a debt of gratitude to The Decline of the American Empire. It brought attention and international acclaim to Quebecois cinema, helping to blaze a trail for their later success.