Decline of the American Empire

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The Decline of the American Empire (1986), or how historians are depressed, hedonistic and abusive scholars who lead meaningless lives and don’t write any history. 

Serge Miville

There are three important things in history: First, the numbers, second, the numbers and third, the numbers. That’s why South African blacks will eventually win, and North American blacks are likely to never pull through.” – “Rémy,” opening lines of Le déclin de l’Empire américain (author’s translation)

Rémy in the classroom

Rémy dropping “historical” truth bombs in the opening scene – South Africans blacks will eventually vanquish apartheid while African-Americans may never “pull through”. Might consider a career in futurology.

Popular Québec cinema has a talent for posing highly reflective and existential questions about its own society. Denys Arcand, a graduate in History from the Université de Montréal, as well as Québec’s (and arguably Canada’s) most successful and celebrated filmmaker, was propelled into international stardom with his post-referendum, Reagan-era Le Déclin de l’Empire Américain / The Decline of the American Empire (1986), a film that epitomizes this tendency.

The film’s cynical, bleak, and overall dreadfully melancholic narrative revolves around a group of offensive, existentially depressed and hedonistic Université de Montréal historians living in a dead-end and meaningless society where their only fleeting comfort is found in frivolous and questionable sexual activity. Their nihilistic lifestyle of guzzling wine at dinner parties and going to massage parlours also seemingly prevents them from either doing a minute of research or writing a line of history.

One has to wonder if this 1986 film made potential students flock towards History, or flee it altogether. Apparently many historians at the time felt unjustly targeted by the film’s content.

Despite Arcand’s dark humour surrounding historians’ professional and personal lives, the film proposes a surprising reflection on the evolution of Québec historiography and the relationship historians have with their own societies. Against the backdrop of the failure of the YES camp to win the 1980 referendum on sovereignty-association, Le déclin presents Québec as a society experiencing its own downfall.

In short, it’s the polar opposite of a Hollywood action flick or feel-good comedy.

Film poster

The film’s poster posits the meaning of life if you’re a historian in the 1980s in Montréal.

Michel Brunet, the École historique de Montréal, and Québec

The now-famous opening lines spoken by “Rémy” (Rémy Girard, for whom this would be a breakout role) are clearly inspired by the historical thought of neo-nationalist Québec historian Michel Brunet, who taught at the Université de Montréal from 1949 until 1983. A self-proclaimed myth buster, Brunet revelled in reminding everyone that there was nothing miraculous about French Canada’s survivance (survival): it was nothing more than the natural consequence of the biological imperative of humans who, as he would say, much like rabbits, reproduce. Often impudent and scathing in his remarks, Brunet was something of a media star, making the rounds of French-Canadian newspapers as well as  radio and television, reminding listeners of the objective and neutral nature of the historian’s craft. Supremely confident, Brunet proclaimed Truth where he sought it, and publicized it widely, often sending Québec premiers or other influential people copies of his lectures, in which he criticized what he believed were myths, shattering widely accepted notions about French Canada’s heroic past.

More importantly, he left a lasting impression on a number of his former students, and developed a reputation as the mouthpiece of the neo-nationalist École historique de Montréal, which represented an important paradigm shift in Québec historical thought from the late 1940s until well into the 1960s. Breaking away from “traditional” nationalistic thought, Montréal historians like Maurice Séguin theorized that both the French colonial regime and the British Conquest of 1759-1760 had determined the future of French Canadians, preventing them from evolving into a normal North American society. This viewpoint diverged from others like abbé Lionel Groulx, mentor to these historians, who, though quite critical of the impact of the Conquest, saw Confederation as a potential form of salvation. But for Séguin, the Conquest had sealed French Canada’s fate and stunted its growth. Confederation only confirmed this subjugation. There could be little hope of redemption.

Mario gesturing

Mario, the anti-intellectual, sums up what post-referendum Québec thought of its academics.

The École historique de Montréal developed at a critical juncture in the professionalization of history in Quebec. Indeed, Séguin, along with colleagues Guy Frégault, who would later become an influential deputy minister of culture in Québec in the 1960s, and Brunet, were among the first Québécois non-clerical historians to obtain PhDs from international universities and to become professors. They helped articulate a new, much-needed historical narrative to make sense of an increasingly tense Québec society in which French Canadians, although the majority, were clearly marginalized within the economy. Their epistemological posture was highly influential, and all three men had complementary roles in its development. American historian Mason Wade would famously say of the trio that Séguin was “The Thinker,” Frégault “The Writer,” and Brunet – in a less generous categorization that captured his raucous personality—was “The Screamer”.[1]

Le déclin: the existential and logical end of the École historique de Montréal

Le déclin came out in 1986, a year after Brunet’s death. Arcand, who had graduated from History at the Université de Montréal, had studied under both Brunet and Séguin. For both, demography was essential in understanding the power dynamics of a given society. For this reason, Brunet strongly believed that French-Canadian minorities would be doomed to live an impoverished existence if they refused to assimilate into English-Canadian society. Québec’s problem, therefore, lay in the fact that the Anglophone minority acted as though it were a majority, and that its Francophone majority never managed to use the many tools at its disposal to emancipate itself. This perspective would be crucial for Arcand’s overall thesis in Le déclin, that Québécois would continually “refuse”, as they had in the past, to use the power of the state to its fullest extent. Brunet’s 1958 essay, “Trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française” (“Three Pillars of French-Canadian Thought”) argued that agriculturism, messianism and, in this case, anti-statism were cornerstones of French-Canadian political thought.[2]

Michel Brunet in his study

Michel Brunet (1917-1985) believed French-Canadians in Québec should use the power of the state. He was not much of a fan of his former student’s work.

Arcand corresponded on a few occasions with Brunet near the end of the latter’s life, and this correspondence underlines the importance of the École historique for Arcand’s film career. Brunet, glorying in his own ability to remain true to himself, was keen to tell the filmmaker that he was not particularly enthralled with his films, notably his 1981 National Film Board film, Confort et indifférence / Comfort and Indifference, a brutally critical analysis of the 1980 referendum on Québec sovereignty and the role of the Parti Québécois. Nonetheless, Brunet was always willing to discuss Arcand’s work over lunch. Clearly a cynic, Arcand’s worldview was much more aligned with Séguin than with Brunet.

However, Brunet and Arcand were staunch nationalists of different generations. Brunet, born in 1917, during World War I, joined the sovereignist camp fairly late. He waited until 1980 to show his colours, to much media fanfare and to the great delight of Parti Québécois leader and Premier René Lévesque. Despite commentary at the time, Brunet had a positive outlook for Quebec’s future. He believed, like Groulx, in the ascending curve of French-Canadian history. For both men, 1867 marked not Québec’s subjugation by Canada, but rather the creation of an autonomous state that was the greatest tool for Québec’s future emancipation. Le déclin, as the name implies, sees no ascending curve, but rather a free-fall plunge after the NO side’s crushing victory in the 1980 referendum and the failure of the sovereignist option. Indeed, Arcand would spend decades of his career reflecting on the grave consequences of Québec’s failure/refusal to attain independence.

By the time of the film’s release, the original members of the École historique de Montréal had died. An increasingly hegemonic wave of social historians born during the Trente glorieuses (the decades of economic growth following World War II) had taken over the burgeoning History departments of the 1970s and 1980s, in the wake of the establishment of the Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM) in 1969. This cohort of social historians understood Québec society in a different way. The “revisionists” as Ronald Rudin[3] would later call them, viewed Québec as a “normal society” and analyzed it through the lens of class analysis.  They eschewed nationalist interpretations and, thus, abandoned the emphasis on Québec’s specific religious and linguistic characteristics. The sweeping analyses which explained Québec’s existence as the sole French-language polity in North America no longer occupied central stage.[4]

Dominique

“Dominique”, chair of the history department and former lover of “Pierre” and “Rémy”, realizes that it doesn’t matter if she ever writes another peer-reviewed article during her career.

Reflecting on Québec after the failed 1980 referendum, Arcand’s opus conveys profound existential dread, constituting an absurdist look at a society that had refused nationhood. In the film, historians, generally regarded as generators of meaning, regress into individualism, decadence and hedonism as the only outlets for their otherwise dead-end existence. In this sense, the film proposed to explore the logical dystopian culmination of Séguin’s deterministic view of Québec society.

Mores and morals in Arcand’s dead-end Québec

“Rémy’s” raucous personality was probably inspired by Brunet’s. However, Brunet’s life is not likely the model for the rather liberal (and abusive) sexual mores of the petty-bourgeois History professors. Four full-time faculty members indulge their passions in this way, undoubtedly reflecting some malignant recesses of academia. Each historian in Arcand’s critically acclaimed film is a person of questionable morals: some have extramarital relationships, and some abuse their status and power as professors to have sexual interactions with students and precarious sessional faculty.

Pierre and Danielle

Probably not what the department had in mind when they asked “Pierre” to supervise “Danielle’s” thesis.

If l’École historique de Montréal had once created a meaningful narrative for Québec’s history and contemporary society, Arcand’s historians have long since given up this project. Weak and immoral, Arcand’s historians spend little time on their craft, preferring their Roman-inspired, decadent lifestyle in order to inject whatever meaning they can into their absurd existence in an equally rudderless Québec society.  In the film, Québec is in decline after decades of feverish reverie about its future.

Historians partying

Since nothing matters, you may as well party to distract yourself from existential dread.

Arcand’s film interprets academic life in grim, and even absurdist, terms that would certainly have greatly upset his former professor. Despite winning numerous accolades, most notably at Cannes and TIFF, as well as garnering an Oscar nomination and skyrocketing Arcand to the status of a serious international filmmaker, Le déclin is profoundly bleak and cynical.

As for Brunet, he made one more appearance in the last scenes of the film. Ironically, “Mario,” the anti-intellectual biker, sporting jeans and a leather jacket, hands over to his love interest, the perennial sessional instructor “Diane,” a copy of Brunet’s 1976 Notre passé, le présent et nous, a collection of articles which contains a scathing (and entertaining) attack on Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s political thought.[5]

Diane, holding Brunet's book

The nation is a demanding mistress. Brunet used history to explain Québec’s political trajectory and offer potential solutions to contemporary issues. His colleague Séguin, on the other hand, didn’t believe Québec could “pull through”. The film embraces Séguin’s view of Québec.

Ultimately, Le déclin pays homage to Brunet, Séguin and the École historique de Montréal. However, Le déclin’s post-referendum world has seemingly lost the crucial battle for existential meaning, espousing the “séguiniste” viewpoint of Québec history. With barbarians at the gate (Les invasions barbares / The Barbarian Invasions, released in 2003, followed by La chute de l’Empire américain / The Fall of the American Empire, released in 2018), life in Québec has become, in Arcand’s film, as meaningless as it was for the Romans of late antiquity.

Serge Miville holds the chair in Franco-Ontarian History at Laurentian University.  His dissertation focused on the intellectual careers of historians Michel Brunet and Donald Creighton.

[1] Jean Lamarre, Le devenir de la nation québécoise selon Maurice Séguin, Guy Frégault et Michel Brunet (1944-1969) (Québec: Septentrion, 1993), p. 384.

[2] Michel Brunet, « Trois dominantes de la pensée canadienne-française : l’agriculturisme, l’anti-étatisme et le messianisme », in La présence anglaise et les Canadiens. Études sur l’histoire et la pensée de deux Canadas (Montréal: Beauchemin, 1958), pp. 113-166.

[3] Ronald Rudin, Faire de l’histoire au Québec (Québec: Septentrion, 1998), ch. 5, « À la recherche de la normalité : le révisionnisme et au-dela », pp. 199-250. The original text in English is available as Making History in Twentieth-Century Quebec,(Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1997).

[4] It is worth noting that Rudin was particularly critical of Brunet’s work. See Rudin, Faire de l’histoire au Québec, p. 146.

[5] Michel Brunet, Notre passé, le présent et nous (Montréal: Fides, 1976).

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3 thoughts on “Decline of the American Empire

  1. José Igartua

    The emphasis on numbers in the opening lines of the movie draws more from Séguin than from Brunet, I believe. Arcand would have been familiar with Séguin’s unpublished work Les normes, in which he offered his “philosophy” of history and defined “normal” societies.

    Terry Crowley, in the Oxford Companion to Canadian Literature (https://www-oxfordreference-com.proxy.bibliotheques.uqam.ca/view/10.1093/acref/9780195411676.001.0001/acref-9780195411676) states that the character played by Rémi Girard was inspired by Séguin. This would be an inside joke of major proportions, as Séguin was widely known by his students in the 1960s to be shy with women.

    The film was shot in part at a cottage owned by a real-lide historian…

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