Given that Denys Arcand's 1986 satire The Decline Of The American Empire is no more than a sexually provocative gabfest involving eight randy Quebecois academics, the title overreaches to such an extent that it sounds ironic. Surely the mild decadence of a few middle-aged swingers and philanderers can't signify something so great as the decay of Western civilization, can it? And yet, as with his equally alarmist 2003 follow-up The Barbarian Invasions, Arcand actually means business. Audiences lured by the prospect of a smart, titillating variation on John Sayles' Return Of The Secaucus 7 made Decline an arthouse hit in its day. But instead of thrills, they got a trip to the principal's office. Behind all those naughty witticisms about orgies, threesomes, and wife-swapping awaits a schoolmarm with a switch, reddening wrists over society's debased moral values and empty pursuit of instant gratification.
Never much of a stylist, Arcand does little to obscure the bland theatricality of his premise, which designates two parties of four to separate corners: The men are cooped up in a lakeside retreat, where they talk about sex, while the women are off chatting at a local health club, where they do likewise. An hour later, when the groups finally come together over trout pie, the gender wars settle into more subtle innuendo and revelations, which suggests that the participants all talk a better game than they play. With nothing at stake dramatically, much less cinematically, Arcand leans heavily on brow-raising repartee to carry the load, but his naked contempt throws a wet blanket over all the frank sexual anecdotes and observations. In that sense, Decline seems like a precursor to Neil LaBute's Your Friends & Neighbors, another excoriating thesis from a tongue-clucking moralist: Provocateurs on the surface yet prudes at heart, they extract the joy from eroticism like marrow from a bone, leaving an empty husk.
Three years later, Arcand's eye for hypocrisy sharpened considerably with Jesus Of Montreal, a free-swinging attack on commercialism, materialism, and their corrupting influence on spirituality and organized religion. Before succumbing to an ending too freighted with symbolic significance, the film strikes the right note of satire and compassion in dealing with an avant-garde troupe's modern passion play. Looking for a break from 35 years of staid tradition, a priest (Gilles Pelletier) gets more than he bargained for when he hires little-known actor Lothaire Bluteau to direct and star as Jesus in a play staged on the church lawn. Integrating facts about the historical Jesus into a bold production, the cast earns raves from the city's cultural elite, but the Catholic institution comes down hard on them, threatening to pull the plug if they don't make radical changes.
In a daring conceit, Arcand allows the play itself to take up much of the middle section, giving full breadth to its religious concepts, and, most importantly, the genuine inspiration the cast takes from Jesus' story. Where they seemed like godless artisans before—one starred in sexy perfume commercials, another only comes on board when he's allowed to incorporate a Shakespeare soliloquy—the actors make a connection with the material that belies Arcand's cynical instincts. When the question "What would Jesus do?" starts to affect Bluteau in a manner that goes beyond Method acting, Arcand pushes too far in matching real-life events with their Biblical correlative. But for a director inclined to see the worst in people and society, this temporary bout of compassion counts as a minor step forward.