"Every film seems to have its obligatory sex scene. The eye has seen everything, but the ear is virgin," declares Denys Arcand, the French-Canadian director of "The Decline of the American Empire." "That was the challenge: to work on words rather than on your eyes--which have seen it all."
The writer-director of the New York Film Critics Circle best foreign-language film award and Canada's entry for the best foreign-language film Oscar was explaining why his film eschewed explicit sex in favor of literate-ironic dialogue about lust and its limitations.
"The Decline of the American Empire" (playing at the Beverly Center Cineplex) cross-cuts between the zesty conversation of four men who are preparing a meal in a country cottage and the pungent revelations of four women working out at a health club. All are articulate if self-deluded academics, and by the time the four women arrive for dinner, the overlapping infidelities of the group are known to the audience--if not to the characters.
The extraordinary success of "The Decline of the American Empire" in Canada, on the film festival circuit and now in the United States attests to the rightness of Arcand's verbal focus. "It's hard to shoot love scenes, and not very nice because people are usually shy," he says. "It's difficult to be original about it: Where do you put the camera . . . that hasn't been done a hundred times before?"
Arcand admits to being surprised by the international acclaim, and by the chance to direct an American remake of his film. But "we're negotiating," he says, "and I might do it."
When asked what makes "Decline" a breakthrough film to U.S. audiences, the 45-year-old director replies, "It's very close to me and my life, but without any specific social reference. You don't need to know anything about the characters' past history: they could be French-Canadian, or anyone else.
"We are North Americans, and the type of life I live in Canada is very close to the type of life you live in New York or Los Angeles, with the same kind of social structure," he continues. "We have the same preoccupations."
He is nevertheless wary of calling his characters representative, insisting, "I don't think any writer or artist would presume to have his characters represent the whole population. In Montreal, I hang out with people like my characters, whether they're academics, musicians, writers, TV or advertising people. Are they representative of hard hats? I don't know.
"Once you strip them of certain characteristics--like time on their hands, or job security--some of the drives are pretty basic. In Canada, we're reaching a great number of people from all walks of life."
Although the title suggests a sweeping epic about the end of a civilization, it turns out to mean something more intimate. One of the female professors has just published a book, "Changing Concepts of Happiness," in which she posits a connection between the frantic pursuit of happiness and the "Decline of the American Empire."
Does the film maker believe such an empire exists? "Yes, I think the peak of the American empire was 1945, when the U.S. fought two different wars on two different continents, and won both," Arcand says. "I think this power is on the wane, but it could be for a long time. The Roman Empire declined for centuries!
"But I'm not a prophet of doom," he adds with a laugh. "Canadians are a little smug because they stand on the border and look down to see what's happening: They try to profit from it, economically or whatever. The Canadian attitude is a bit like the Swiss in Europe: It tries to be a bit apart and to profit. For instance, this was our attitude during the Vietnam War and the Cuban missile crisis."
He confesses that some of the smugness has to do with the fact that the AIDS crisis has not yet reached epidemic proportions in Canada. Although one of his protagonists is a homosexual with an undiagnosed disease, Arcand explains, "We are somewhat removed from the scene in New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco. Of course, the problem will grow and we will go into a panic like you.
"Americans are really obsessed by health," he continues with a puzzled look. "Americans have always been good at sublimation. The Protestant ethic has made people rich; now it's making people with great bodies," he concludes wryly.