Back in the mid-2000s, right around the time of America’s second conflict with Saddam Hussein, the idea of the decline of America (or of the West) began to resurface in political discourse. While most commentators still spoke of America as an “indispensable nation” in the midst of a “unipolar moment,” keen observers suspected that the foundations were more fragile than they appeared. The idea did receive a certain mainstream hearing: “Are We Rome?” asked the Atlantic in a 2007 cover story, emphasizing America’s out-of-control spending, its crumbling infrastructure, and its apparent inability to set achievable foreign policy goals. Yet, in general, the emphasis on decline—in the United States, at least—remained the concern of a few novelists and political writers of varying degrees of respectability.
Since then, the idea of decline has moved from a fringe concern to a virtually unchallenged orthodoxy, expressed directly or indirectly in popular book titles, newspaper columns, and political slogans. Yet while civilizational decline has officially become a meme, it’s unclear if it’s been adequately understood even by its contemporary proponents. The old Kennedy-Reagan progressives thought that all good things go together—that economic growth would produce better politics, better cultural products, and a more peaceful world. Today’s declinists tend to believe that all bad things go together. The relative decline in the power of the West does not only reduce economic prospects for many but also cultural decay, a decline in freedom of thought, and an inevitable nosedive toward barbarism. This point of view is exemplified by the New York Times writer Ross Douthat, who in a recent book tends to use the word decadence almost as a synonym for “bad.” If anything, the new Untergang des Abendlandes is now even in danger of becoming a little stale—and some of the thinkers who embraced it have creditably moved on to thinking about what, if anything, can be done to reverse the decline, or else how to understand a potential “post-Western” stage in history.
One cannot, however, quite leave it at that. Couldn’t accurate insight into how badly things are going lead to a kind of constructive political humility? And, even if constructive thoughts cannot be translated into effective political action, one can at least take a certain solace in the historical fact that the clearest thinking and best writing often takes place in periods of decline or decadence. “The Republic,” wrote the late historian of philosophy Stanley Rosen, “is Plato’s account of his struggle against decadence.” The works for which Athens is today primarily remembered as great were in many cases enabled by the decadence accompanying the rise—but perhaps even more particularly the fall—of Athens from political greatness. If we can’t look forward to a functioning politics, perhaps we’ll at least get some good books or other works of art again.
We need more thorough examinations of the meaning of decline as well as its possible implications in our time. So far, at least, we don’t have our Polybius or our Montesquieu. We do have a few, often francophone, writers and artists who have, over recent decades, characterized or satirized civilizational decline with unusual depth: it is perhaps sufficient to mention the widely acclaimed—and controversial—comic literary persona known as Michel Houellebecq. The aim of this article is to interpret the work of another great—if less famous—francophone depicter of social and political decline: the Montreal filmmaker Denys Arcand. Hardly known outside his native Quebec, Arcand is nevertheless one of the most insightful filmmakers of our time. He is principally recognized for 2003’s Les Invasions barbares, which portrays a late middle-aged, sex-obsessed, undistinguished Montreal history professor dying of cancer. This film won the Oscar for best foreign language film. Some of his other films were reasonably well received, particularly 1986’s Le Déclin de l’empire américain and Jésus de Montréal (1989). His masterwork L’Age des ténèbres (2007) was generally panned in Quebec; it’s difficult to even find today.
Beginning from the middle of the 1980s—an ostensibly “triumphant” time in the West—Arcand made civilizational decline the key theme of his work. As he put in a 2018 interview in advance of his recent film La Chute de l’empire américain, his goal as a filmmaker has been to “place a mirror in front of our life and times.” And what he has seen has been imperial decline:
Even in the most remote corners of the planet, we are all subjects of the American Empire. This empire is dying and its convulsions touch us brutally. Those who put all their hopes in the departure of Trump forget that after Caligula came Nero, and three centuries of inexorable disintegration.
What makes Arcand’s portraits of decline so compelling, however, is that they are not imposed from above on his characters as a theory. His films simply portray, sympathetically but unsparingly, the lives of contemporary individuals who can see that society is breaking apart. As we make our way through his corpus, society begins to look that way to us as well.
The Old and New Quebec
Some notes about Denys Arcand’s life and world are in order, since it exemplifies the rapid social and political change that Quebec underwent over the second half of the twentieth century—and which was to feature as the tableau for his films. Arcand was born in 1941 in Deschambault, Quebec, a small village along the Saint Lawrence River south of the city of Quebec, and grew up in a religious, working-class Catholic family. His father was a sailor who was away from home during the three-month season when the ice of the river had broken sufficiently to allow for the passage of ships. This was an insular, traditional world. Arcand’s father faced the same navigational obstacles as Samuel de Champlain had faced during his explorations of New France in the first decades of the seventeenth century.
While at university, Arcand became involved in filmmaking. Aided by the National Film Board of Canada—in those years a sterling example of a government-funded arts body actually fulfilling an important social mission—he embarked on a career of historical and political documentary making that later turned to feature films. In 1982, he released a marvelous documentary, Le Confort et l’indifférence, about Quebec’s first referendum for independence (1980). Though a documentary, the film features a character actor who plays Machiavelli, dressed in Florentine robes. He looks down at the city of Montreal from the heights of a downtown corporate boardroom and recites relevant portions from The Prince. “Unarmed prophets always fail,” Arcand’s Machiavelli tells us, as we watch the completely out-of‑his-depth Quebec premier René Levesque campaign for the province’s independence.
Arcand’s ascent upriver to Montreal for university was to him a kind of liberation. Around this time, he lost his faith, immersing himself in the study of history and becoming a lifelong reader of political philosophy. Discussions of the great writers abound in Arcand’s work.
In leaving the world of traditional, Catholic Quebec, Arcand followed the path of so many of his generation who made the “Quiet Revolution” in the 1950s and 1960s. Visiting the then British colony of Lower Canada in the 1830s on his North American voyage, the French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at the absolute dominance of religious orders (especially the Jesuits) in French Canada, reminding him of the France of previous centuries. This remained largely true until the 1950s, when the pews emptied almost overnight—one of the fastest secularization processes in world history. The religious seminaries, colleges, and churches still stand in the Montreal of today, but the students and worshippers are mostly gone. Many churches have become mid-market condominiums or yoga studios.
Quebec’s break from the past offered a promise of double liberation. On the one hand, it promised a path to modernization and participation in the various cultural revolutions of the West of the time. On the other hand, it promised the possibility of transforming Quebec’s distinct society into a national political entity. The sovereigntist political movement prominent in Quebec from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s tried valiantly to keep these two strands together. Even as it would advance the aims and cultural heritage of the Québécois de souche, an independent Quebec would also serve as a new model polity that would advance continued modernization. It would promote gender equality. It would offer sexual liberation. It would provide a generous cradle-to-grave welfare state that would allow Quebecers to devote themselves to the things that really matter in life. When the environmental movement took off, the new country could be conceived to advance the cause of a greener world as well.
The project for Quebec independence did not fail simply because of the tensions between its particularistic ethno-national aims and its moral vision of post-religious modernization. Declaring an independent state when surrounded on all sides by Anglos, and with a sizeable non-French minority, was always going to be difficult. But while an independent Quebec was not achieved, the global social and cultural revolution of the postwar era went further in Quebec than virtually anywhere else in the West.
For example, although having the highest birth rate in the Western world in the 1950s, the native Quebecois now have one of the absolute lowest. More than one-third of households in Quebec are now single occupancy. Of state-recognized relationships, 40 percent are common-law partnerships rather than marriages. Only 10 percent of Quebecers now attend religious services with any frequency—a shocking figure when one considers that Quebec does have a sizeable number of more traditional immigrants. Just over a quarter say they believe in God. Rather than an independent polity with a distinct purpose, the Quebec of today more closely resembles the kind of society described by Francis Fukuyama in The End of History and the Last Man. Relatively prosperous, shielded from global political developments, its people live in pursuit of small pleasures in the morning and small pleasures in the evening. Even if one grants—and I certainly do—that Quebec has some of the best sights, sounds, and tastes in North America, it is hard to think that this has satisfied the hopes of those who made the Quiet Revolution. Francis Fukuyama describes life after the end of history as “sad” (!), and it may be.
Arcand’s movies depict the transformation of Quebec. As a sort of fellow traveler who shed the shackles of the past along with his contemporaries, Arcand can sympathetically yet honestly portray the kind of society it has become. Arcand saw it all from the inside, but he refuses to flatter; the story he tells is of cultural decline and of social disintegration. Yet his criticism is not conservative or reactionary. As its nationalists like to say, Quebec is a “distinct society.” But as America and the rest of the West has or may go down a similar road, its story has much to teach us.
A Tetralogy of Decline
Decline, either subtextually or overtly, is the driving idea in Arcand’s so-called tetralogy, a series of films made from the middle 1980s through the present. The films are Le Déclin de l’empire américain (1986), Les Invasions barbares (2003), L’Age des ténèbres (2007), and finally La Chute de l’empire américain (2018). All set in and around Montreal, featuring many of the same characters as well as actors, they are best understood as contemporary period pieces that depict mores, ideas, and sensibilities—the technical academic history term is “mentalités.” Rather than abstracting from the broader world like many contemporary novelists and filmmakers, however, Arcand always enmeshes his characters in the political world and shows us how their inner lives are shaped by it. In the rest of what follows, I present a sketch of these four movies, detailing the particular historical periods they capture and what they tell us about the current moment.
Le Déclin de l’empire américain is set in 1986. The Western countries are accelerating toward a decisive triumph over their Soviet rival even as many people, and especially the intellectuals, cannot see it. In this moment, Arcand introduces us to a circle of friends who believe that the American empire is in decline. They are humanities academics in early middle age, baby boomers in the prime of life. Set in a country house near Montreal, Déclin is essentially a scripted dialogue in the form of a movie. The men, old academic friends and colleagues, make dinner while discussing their sexual escapades, tastes, and predilections in graphic detail. The women—two academics, one massage therapist, and one housewife—are off working out at a local gym while discussing many of the same topics. Finally, the sexes are reunited. A luxurious dinner is served, and both men and women must endeavor to elevate the conversation.
The film does not have much of a plot. Louise (Dorothée Berryman), the housewife who saw herself as happily married, finds out that her husband Rémi, a professor, has been shagging half the women of Montreal. Rémi and Louise also have children, having the only intact nuclear family of the group. But their marriage now appears shattered.
These men and women are witty, urbane, charming, great company. We have to admire what we see. The men all claim to be devoted, above all else, to the pursuit of sexual expression. There’s no #MeToo or academic precarity. What’s there to worry about? They brag about their freedom, broad-mindedness, and fearlessness in the face of possible disease, marital norms, or other social conventions.
Behind the scenes, however, Arcand shows us that these men do not live up to what they profess in speech. Rémi, the lout who had spoken eloquently of there being nothing higher than sexual gratification, cries and stammers like a child when confronted by his wife Louise. The art historian Claude (Yves Jacques) claims not to be concerned about disease through his pursuit of anonymous sexual encounters, but he is actually terrified. As for the women, they waver between trying to beat the men at their own game—in professional or sexual pursuits—and expressing dissatisfaction at what the men have become. Two of the four would seem to be content with romance and a happy family life while the others embrace extreme careerism or the pursuit of the new and the strange. Individual passion, pleasure, and self-expression are crowned as the highest virtues.
The characters are both aware and unaware; their delusions are subtle. Dominique (Dominique Michel), a single, cutthroat academic who sleeps with as many different men as Rémi does women, has just written a book that argues that, whenever a civilization begins to obsess over personal happiness, it is a sign that the end is approaching. America, the land just to the south where greed is good and where the citizens have turned inward, is destined to go down. Yet this is no cause for despondency. Recognizing and accepting this decline can actually be the recipe for enjoying whatever happiness this life provides. Though America will go down, an insignificant province like Quebec may only experience mild symptoms. The point is to enjoy life, she says, even as we see her unable to experience anything resembling satisfaction in any domain.
Arcand’s professors proclaim self-satisfaction in speech even as they are deeply dissatisfied in practice. Dominique’s thesis is unquestioned by the group. Young in the late 1960s, they believe they are truly liberated. They have seen the hollowness of bourgeois pursuits, of the rat race, of mere dirty politics as opposed to the higher politics and social causes to which they claim allegiance. The characters are uniformly contemptuous of the “Reaganite” materialism and obsession with wealth. They value “experiences over things,” a sentiment one often hears expressed today among rather materialistic people. Yet they half recognize, bitterly, that their life of higher pursuits has in many respects been enabled by the wealth generation of America and the security umbrella under which Quebec fortunately falls.
The film is full of paeans to what might ironically be called the life of the mind. But where is mind? “I’ll never be Toynbee or Braudel,” the historian Pierre (Pierre Curzi) says to his skeptical and more levelheaded Gen X graduate student, “all that’s left is sex.” As the film opens, Rémi tells his undergraduates that “morality has no role in the study of history. The only thing that matters is numbers.” Denying his own discipline its humane underpinnings, Rémi cannot take it, or ultimately himself, seriously. The Talmud teaches that behind every profession of faith in the life of mind, or the philosophic life, is the desire to live in an epicurean way—popularly understood. Though this may not be true in every case, it is certainly true here. And what becomes of people who live this way?
Barbarians at the Gate
Seventeen years later, in 2003, Arcand revisits these old friends to see what has become of them. Les Invasions barbares, actually a weaker film that lapses at times into flattery of the characters and the audience, won the Academy Award for best foreign language film. Rémi, now divorced though on reasonable terms with Louise, is battling terminal cancer in a totally overburdened Montreal hospital. The doctors and nurses are callous, having limited time and resources for patients. Enter Rémi’s son Sébastien (Stéphane Rousseau), who represents the triumph of the “barbarian way.” Sébastien is a banker living in London, returning to Montreal on the pleading of his mother to see his dying father. The academic, socialist Rémi had always held his finance bro son in contempt. “Can’t he read even one book?” he asks Louise. Yet Arcand gives the neoliberalism of Rémi’s son its due. Using some bare-knuckle tactics and common bribery (still a feature of Quebec life), Sébastien is able to get Rémi his own private hospital room, a perk “usually reserved for hockey players.” Sébastien also uses his globalized network to get Rémi’s results analyzed by a Johns Hopkins doctor. He pays for trip down to a Vermont hospital for better testing and some more humane care. Rémi bravely wants to die in Quebec, surrounded by his friends.
Arcand allows Rémi the camaraderie of the old gang reunited, along with the happy memories of romantic pursuits, as comfort in his final days. Yet, at the end, his life looks sad. In somewhat soppy fashion, he reconciles with his son. Not having been a devoted teacher, he has no students of note. And, his mind and attention elsewhere, he never wrote anything at all—no obstacle to tenure in those days. Ultimately, the life lived in pursuit of pleasures produces regrets.
Were we to stop here, one might view Arcand’s films as a kind of farce of baby boomer intellectuals—a joke made on behalf of common morality or common sense. What left-wing Canadian academics said about American imperial decline in the mid-1980s looked laughable just a few years later. America would enter the 1990s looking strong, its model and power unchallenged. The America of the early 2000s we see in Invasions similarly looks to have hidden strengths despite, or because of, the dominance of money and finance. Though challenged by terrorism and by foreign war, America remains a land of technical prowess, scientific capacity, and professionalism. The crass materialism denounced by the Quebecois intellectuals is still turned to genuinely humane and productive ends. If the broader society is strong, who cares what a bunch of intellectuals do or think?
Is the broader empire so strong? If this was an open question at the beginning of the 2000s, it has been settled, for Denys Arcand at least, once we enter the world of L’Age des ténèbres (2007). The nihilism thought to be the specialty of disaffected intellectuals is now generalized through all of society. As the middle-class world disintegrates slowly but inexorably, we see ever more desperate and futile efforts to escape it in perhaps the most poignant depiction of the crisis of our time.
“We can characterize our epoch by one word—disintegration.” So announces the hero Jean-Marc (Marc Labrèche) in the film, fancying himself a famous writer interviewed by a comely young journalist. Yet Jean-Marc is not a famous writer but a suburban dad whose life is falling apart. He is a “complaints officer” for the provincial government, with offices in the old crumbling Olympic Stadium of Montreal. Montrealers come to him seeking help with crushing difficulties, mostly brought about by the failures or inefficiencies of the state. His job is to tell them that nothing can be done. Meanwhile, his home life has fractured. His smooth-talking, morally obtuse real estate agent wife has gone off to Toronto for an affair with the company boss. His teenaged daughters, alarmingly sexually precocious, stare all day at screens. Having a careless spouse and no siblings—remember the sharp decline in Quebec’s birthrate, producing a large number of only children—Jean-Marc visits his ailing mother who is dying slowly and alone in another public hospital, this one a long-term care facility as ill-managed as the hospital in Les Invasions barbares.
The depiction of Jean-Marc’s professional and personal life, and of broader social currents, was exceptionally clairvoyant about many developments that were then only percolating but that now, in the early 2020s, are part of our lives. The action of the film begins during an epidemic. Jean-Marc rides the commuter rail into Montreal surrounded by people wearing surgical masks. Jean-Marc’s provincial government office epitomizes bureaucratic petty despotism. Its commissars are more focused on speech codes and upholding a smoking ban than on delivering effective services. The churches are empty and everyone’s parents are divorced. A strong leitmotif of the film is Jean-Marc’s half-hearted flirtation with “medieval recreationism.” He joins groups of ordinary people who strip off their work clothes and cosplay as dwellers of a coherent medieval society. They attend festivals where they must compete in jousting for the hand of a maiden, where a Crusades-era pope calls for the liberation of Jerusalem from the infidels. Inevitably, one thinks of the cosplay medievalists who toured the U.S. Capitol on January 6 professing to liberate Washington.
With his real life falling apart, Jean-Marc retreats into fantasies and participates in various fads available for the pursuit of pleasure or meaning. But the options available to him are far grimmer than they had been for the escapist academics of the 1980s. And Jean-Marc is a sympathetic character. He has enough intelligence and honesty not to fall for various obscurantist or crackpot efforts to escape his deplorable situation. But neither can he improve on what he has. At the end of the film, he returns, alone, to his late father’s cabin in rural Quebec. Back to the small town, back to the old world. He helps neighbors with gardening, with working the land. But this is not a happy back-to-nature ending. He can’t go home again. This cultivation of the garden is not a metaphor for philosophy but for willing the nothing, gently.
Jean-Marc is an everyman bourgeois. The prior films centered on intellectuals. But the most poignant scene of the movie is where they overlap. Into Jean-Marc’s office one day strides Pierre, the very same Pierre we know from Déclin and also Les Invasions. He inquires about the possibility of public housing. A woman he married for reasons of “lust” has taken him for all he is worth. Jean-Marc empathizes by explaining the dissolution of his own life to Pierre. “At least you’re young,” replies Pierre.
Having reached the twenty-first century, we see that the dilemma facing the “everyman” and the “intellectual” are now the same. Free from the strictures of the traditional world, the people of the postwar era were promised autonomy and independence—freedom, pleasure, and self-discovery. But it was not possible, at least as these ideas came to be understood. And their pursuit increasingly leaves a fragmenting, weakening, and declining society.
Lest Denys Arcand (or myself) be misunderstood, these films do not argue that social decay is the result of a deliberate “cultural Marxist” strategy inflicted on the body politic by corrupt, randy professors like Rémi. Closer to the truth may be that they confirm the insight of Daniel Bell’s Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism—or, for that matter, what Montesquieu describes about civil decline in one of his lesser-known works. As society gets richer and more successful, and as it defeats rivals, its civic and religious commitments inevitably weaken. They weaken because of wealth itself but also because the habits of success grow only in the face of recognized necessities. When necessities do not seem to appear, the work ethic and discipline necessary for a society to grow strong and rich weakens, finally making the society vulnerable to more ambitious and hungry newcomers. And social reform of a society in this state is the hardest challenge there is since men stubbornly cling both to their illusions and to what they already have attained, even as the latter seems to diminish. Social strife does not immediately follow—certainly not in the “provinces.” But there is, as Jean-Marc says, disintegration, a fraying that further persuades genuinely public-spirited people that, since reforms can’t go anywhere, politics is simply not worth the effort.
The Fall of the American Empire
Arcand’s most recent film, La Chute de l’empire américain (2018) feels like a kind of postscript to L’Age des ténèbres. Here we have a movie about millennials. And the indisputably cheesy, B-rate aspects of this film are likely due to Arcand not knowing this generation very well.
Nevertheless, the film offers a clairvoyant and alarming picture of the 2010s, after the financial crisis. Paradoxically, that crisis led to the greater financialization of the world. Signs of that financialization are evident in many urban centers, even in the always charmingly dilapidated Montreal.
The increase of financial flows would seem on the surface to promise a rejuvenation of sorts. Montreal looks better and richer. There are new cafés and restaurants, delivery services, plenty of opportunities to try a start-up or join the gig economy. But has the new glitter and the new wealth really offered social rejuvenation? Does the rot continue underneath and indeed on the surface? The thesis of this film is that the financialization of the society, and the massive inequality it has introduced, has pushed many credible and noble activities underground—including philosophy.
The hero of the movie is Pierre-Paul, a millennial Montrealer with a PhD in philosophy from McGill University who makes his living delivering packages. (Some of my own contemporaries from my McGill philosophy undergraduate days do indeed make their living in similar gig-style work.) One immediately thinks back to the situation of the boomer academics in Déclin. Whereas Rémi and his friends, comfortably middle-class and tenured, can pursue love affairs, Pierre-Paul is effectively an incel. There does not even seem to be a hint that he could have had a comfortable life as a professor.
Pierre-Paul happens to stumble upon a massive amount of money after a botched robbery he witnesses; the sometimes silly plot of the movie follows his efforts to find a way to keep it while also distributing it to the needy. But his first act with the money is hiring a high-end call girl who goes by the name of “Aspasia”—the wife of Pericles whose beauty and wisdom are described by Socrates in the Symposium. Aspasia is a lovely, cultivated women who came to prostitution because she had been pressed by her mother to marry a millionaire. Her life now consists of being flown around to various “destination cities” by wealthy businessmen. In a previous era, the philosophy grad and Aspasia might have had a dignified life. They now find themselves at the bottom in a world of low-grade scams. They are not, however, at the absolute bottom. That role is reserved for the lower middle class who have become poor and in many cases pushed onto the street. Pierre-Paul and Aspasia use the money they retain to help alleviate Montreal’s housing crisis and offer food to people who have absolutely nothing.
La Chute shows us two poles: we have money movers on one hand and gig workers on the other. We see the hardening of an oligarchy whose “innovation” and “great companies” frequently seem to rely on scams. They do nothing to shore up the “foundations” of the empire despite the difficulties that it faces, but still does not even fully comprehend.
Art Amid the Ruins
Denys Arcand will turn eighty this June. It’s unclear whether he will make another movie on decline. But the movies he has made—always beautified by his wonderful cinematic taste, his ability to make Montreal a world in itself, and by his fitting selection of baroque—are worthy accompaniments for us as we think through our own situation.
Arcand’s films are not a substitute for the literature, from Polybius to Montesquieu, on political decline. One lesson one might draw from them, actually, is that a focus on the literature is an ambiguous thing. Indeed, one could imagine an Arcand character who enjoys declinist literature so much that he avoids confronting the problems in his own life or within society at large.
And yet, the problem of decline must be faced. Can the empire draw on hidden depths? Or is the future one of Neros and Caligulas—and maybe a Denys Arcand or two to write and portray, since what else can one do but write and portray when every avenue for effective action is blocked?