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November 21, 1986|MICHAEL WILMINGTON

There's a peculiar brand of high spirits--right on the rim of hysteria--that sometimes hits us the moment we sense doom in the air. It's a tricky, hair-raising sensation, like dancing on the abyss--and, though it can affect both individuals or whole epochs, it's hard to capture it well.

Writer-director Denys Arcand gets it masterfully in his brilliant new comedy-drama, "The Decline of the American Empire" (Cineplex).

On the surface, the movie (in French with English subtitles) is a simple conversation piece. But within its limitations, this film is a triumph. Like Eric Rohmer's work, it's a beautiful example of how richly you can create and embellish within apparent strictures.

In "Decline," a group of witty, articulate French Canadian intellectuals join together for a weekend of trout, wine, badinage and lovemaking on Canada's Lake Memphremagog. It's a drowsily beautiful, autumnally seductive retreat--and, in a droll twist, we first meet the men preparing the sumptuous dinner, and the women at an exercise spa, trading innuendoes on synchronous weights. The main topic of both groups is sex.

All of them are connected, in some way, to a Montreal university history department. Included are the department head, Dominique (Dominique Michel); three professors, Remy (Remy Girard), Pierre (Pierre Curzi) and Claude (Yves Jacques); a lower-level teacher, Diane (Louise Portal); Remy's wife, Louise (Dorothee Berryman), and two younger students, Alain (Daniel Briere) and Danielle (Genevieve Rioux). There is also a mysterious outsider: a swarthy, leather-jacketed motorcyclist, in shades and 10 o'clock shadow, named Mario (Gabriel Arcand, the director's brother). Mario--simmering with perverse machismo-- is Diane's lover, a sadist who raises welts of passion that she casually shows to her startled but tacitly sophisticated friends.

In the beginning, everything is so droll and silkenly swift, the dialogue so witty, pretty and coruscant that the film has the effect of several quick liqueurs before dinner. It gets you giddy, leaves you ripe for the feast and combats to come. The academics are a genuinely charming bunch. In their 40s, they retain youth's fresh, open countenance. Pessimists about society, they've kept a sense of life's possibilities (if only the erotic ones). There's a bright sheen to their banter, and they smile constantly: the easy, sunny, self-satisfied smiles of friends among friends, able to say anything without consequences.

What they say becomes more and more disturbing. Every light joke has a dark edge. All of them, in a way, have cheated on or used each other, engaging in a covert roundelay of sex that omits only the group's one devoted wife, Louise, and its one homosexual, Claude. Fittingly, only the faithful Louise--whose 15-year-long gullibility is the one plot strand that strains belief--has some optimism left about the world outside.

Dominique believes--as they all probably do--that the American empire is in an advanced stage of historical decay, that "the signs of decline are everywhere, all around us," irreversible, terminal. Perhaps their promiscuity is an offshoot of this pessimism.

But perhaps it's only another lie. When we see these people in flashback, or in actual lovemaking, they are tired, furtive, guilty-looking, desperate or compulsive. Only in their byplay with each other, in the remembrance of affairs past, do they seem truly open and free. Mario, the outlaw and brutalist, is ready for action and orgies. Most of the rest, voyeurs and analyzers, prefer to talk it up over good wine. The concept of promiscuity is what they most relish. Its reality, as we eventually see, is capable of shattering them.

Is it possible to bestow one universal golden palm of praise to an entire cast? This one richly deserves it. The actors, unfamiliar to American audiences--though some are famous Canadian TV personalities--are all perfect. (Perhaps Remy Girard's merrily callous hedonist stands out most.) This is as splendid a comic-dramatic ensemble as the one in "Hannah and Her Sisters," so good that Arcand can get away with a mockingly anti-Woody Allen jibe himself.

But all the jokes, the deft verbal byplay, the shining Handelian musical accompaniment, the immaculately flowing rhythm of the shots, are tied into a unifying vision--one both funny and painful, lively and bleak. As we watch, the film seems to leap over profound deeps of darkness, like a tightrope walker skipping over the chasm. We laugh, we applaud, we see the high-wire man silhouetted against sunlight and clouds. And we're dazzled briefly away from the danger--until the moment when the walker stumbles, reminding us of the abyss that lies under his feet.

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